Glowing bacteria could slow the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs

Determining which antibiotics are likely to work against which bacteria could be crucial to tackling the rise of superbugs

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria presents an ominous threat for humankind, with these so-called superbugs projected to kill millions of people annually by midway through the century. Scientists at the University of Exeter have developed a promising technique that could help us keep these crafty foes in check, by quickly illuminating bacteria when antibiotics have had the desired effect.

Such is the seriousness of superbug dilemma that one UK government report recently found they could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 unless some new solutions are found. These are bacteria that have evolved to become resistant to our very best drugs, and they could possibly cast the world back into the dark ages of medicine if they are simply left to do their thing.

While this resistance occurs naturally as bacteria evolve, one of the major contributing factors to its acceleration is the overuse of antibiotics. Prescribing antibiotics for humans and having them take drugs either for the wrong condition or consume more than they need, creates more opportunities for the bacteria to evolve, ramping up the overall trend.

The new technology developed by the University of Exeter team could help address this issue, by revealing whether the antibiotics will work on certain bacteria. This is currently done through laboratory testing, but is laborious and time consuming, so a technology that can offer results in minutes would be a major step in slowing antibiotic resistance.

It starts with a sample of bacteria, which is injected into a miniaturized device along with the antibiotic being tested, which in this case was ofloxacin. Crucially, when viewed under a special microscope, the antibiotic glows when exposed to UV light. This means that as the antibiotic penetrates the membrane of the bacteria and takes hold, it lights that up as well, allowing the scientists to see if the antibiotic is effective.

“We’re really excited about the potential for this technique to make a meaningful reduction in prescribing, helping to fight the global threat of antibiotic resistance, ' says Dr Stefano Pagliara, who led the research. "At the moment, it can take days for clinicians to get a lab result, which involves growing bacteria, but there is still some guess work involved. Our technique could reduce the use of multiple antibiotics to try and fight a bacterial infection.”

The team is now experimenting with other types antiobiotics, tweaking their fluorescent qualities so that they light up in the same way. With further work, the researchers hope the technology can be used in clinics to tackle overprescription of antibiotics, and also help with the development of more effective drugs.

The research was published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

Source: University of Exeter