'It's become a game': Researchers race to figure out resistance to antibiotics

A common microbe that lives in hospitals could be responsible for the deaths of 10 million people each year, say experts at the University of Texas.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read November 24, 2021
Abstract pop art color paint splash pattern background. Vector overlay geometric design of trendy trendy 80s-90s style

Acinetobacter baumannii, a microbe known for thriving in hospitals and clinics, has been found to fight back against antibiotics and resist treatment. GETTY

As of 2050, as many as 10 million people each year could die from an antibiotic resistant pathogen, experts at the University of Texas at Arlington say.

Acinetobacter baumannii, a microbe known for thriving in hospitals and clinics, has been found to fight back against antibiotics and resist treatment. 

“In previous research, we discovered that when A. baumannii experiences stress, such as antibiotic treatment, it modifies its cell envelope to tolerate the antibiotic for extended periods of time,” Joseph Boll, assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at Arlington said in a release. “Specific modifications allow the bacteria to survive long enough to acquire true antibiotic resistance, which can lead to antibiotic treatment failure. This can happen within 24 hours of antibiotic exposure.”

Boll hopes his team will soon be able to hone in on which adaptations allow the pathogen to survive the antibiotic treatment. 

Combining medicines for use against antibiotic resistant bacteria has been standard practice since researchers discovered a possible resistance, but even that has become less effective over time. 

“It has become a game,” Boll said. “Researchers discover a new antimicrobial, then bacteria become resistant to it. We are running out of options. Bacterial resistance is quickly outpacing new antibiotic development.”

As of 2017, the most recent data available, more than 24 million prescriptions for antibiotics were filled in Canada, according to the federal government, although only about eight per cent of those prescriptions were dispensed in a hospital, where acinetobacter baumannii is known to live. 

Each year in the United States, at least 2.8 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and more than 35,000 of those die, reports the Centers for Disease Control. And while antibiotic resistance can impact anyone, people with chronic illnesses are more at risk to drug-resistant infections.

There are a number of standard medical procedures that require antibiotics, including joint replacement, transplants, and treatments for diabetes, asthma, cancer, and arthritis. There are also potential impacts in the veterinary sector, as well as the agricultural industry. 

According to a study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine from 2018, antibiotics are regularly used in food and water for livestock to keep it clean. But since humans later consume the animals, it is possible for people to have what is known as “antibiotic pollution” in their food. Antibiotic pollution can be found in meat, milk, and eggs. 

Another study published in January suggests that two LD-transpeptidase enzymes change the cell envelope of acinetobacter baumannii to help with survival against antibiotic treatments. 

Hannah Bovermann, a senior double-major in biology and microbiology at the University of Texas at Arlington, dissected the genes responsible for the bacteria’s LD-transpeptidase enzyme change in an attempt to learn how stress, such as antibiotics, impact the bacteria’s reaction. 

Bovermann was able to isolate part of the LD-transpeptidase responsible for the change and stick it to another gene responsible for turning the cell blue. She was then able to observe when the cell was trying to protect itself from harm (say from antibiotics) because it would then turn itself blue. 

“Each response brings us closer to an understanding of how cell envelope modifications keep the bacterial cell intact in stress,” Bovermann said.

The cell envelope is essentially the inner portion of the cell wall, responsible for keeping the organism protected and helping to keep its shape. It is the defence system against anything trying to break down the cell.