03/13/2017 10:01 EDT | Updated 03/13/2017 10:02 EDT

Curing The 'Addiction' Of Antibiotic Resistance

amphotora via Getty Images
Women pouring medicine into hand.

Every life form encounters stress. The trick to staying healthy is to find ways to manage troublesome situations. The strategies used can be split into two major coping mechanisms. One involves internal biological pathways to survive. The other requires outside supplementation to give the organism at least a chance to overcome the burden.

In the human context, two very different options can be used to deal with stress. The biological route requires the body to alter the way it responds, such as a rise in inflammation or a change in the way the brain functions. The supplementation route is far easier to appreciate; we use drugs to calm the nerves.

In bacteria, the same two routes are used to deal with outside pressures. They can biologically change the way their cells operate, usually as a result of genetic mutation. But they also can gain new genetic elements, known as plasmids, to give them an advantage.

While both humans and bacteria can achieve a better life with supplements, ultimately, there is a price. Depending on the nature of the chemical, the individual may become addicted. This need can then persist long after the original stresses have disappeared.

The concept of supplement addiction in human terms is relatively understood. As anyone who has suffered from this ailment can attest, it is very difficult to remediate. Yet, this goal can be achieved through the use of interference mechanisms, such as the use of surrogate drugs, or changes in lifestyle and behaviour.

For a bacterium, the condition of supplement addiction is far less understood and finding the means to cure the cell of a plasmid-based need has been for the most part a mystery. Usually, ridding a cell of a plasmid is easy. You place the cell in a stress-free environment such that the added genetic material is no longer required. But when addiction sets in, even this technique cannot cure the cell. The outside element is there to stay.

This microbial concept of supplement addiction may not appear to be highly relevant to our own lives. Yet, there is one form of bacterial addiction known to be incredibly relevant to human health. It's antibiotic resistance, which as we all know, is a major crisis worldwide.

At its core, antibiotic resistance is merely a coping mechanism. Bacteria are faced with a rather dire form of stress and need to find a way to cope. They can take the biological route of genetic mutation to render the drug useless. They also can gain a plasmid from the environment or another bacterium, to gain resistance mechanisms. This latter route, while incredibly useful, may lead to addiction. The cell becomes used to having the outside genetic material and keeps it for generations.

From the bacterial point of view, this is a good thing. But if you happen to be a health professional trying to deal with an infection, this addiction can throw a major wrench into any treatment plan. To give the patient a chance to heal, this form of addiction needs to be cured.

This requirement led a group of Australian researchers to undertake the addiction challenge. They tried to figure out how to get rid of those plasmid supplements so the bacteria could no longer use their addiction to continue infection. They recently revealed one option that one day might allow us to "cure" pathogens.

The process was relatively similar to how humans deal with addiction. The team first developed a plasmid supplement that mimicked the antibiotic resistance plasmid. It was akin to a microbial form of methadone for heroin. But there was an added trick. Once it was inside an addicted cell, this aptly named interference plasmid would look for the genes that caused resistance and destroy them.

As expected, when the interference plasmid was administered in the lab, resistance went away. The team had cured the bacteria of addiction. But this was merely a proof of concept. They needed to ensure this method would work in a real-life scenario.

For this next round of experiments, mice containing addicted bacteria in their intestines were used. When a microbial supplement containing the interference plasmid was introduced, the resistant cells were killed within days. Just like what the team had seen in the lab, the bacteria had been cured of their addiction.

For the authors, the results reveal a new approach to dealing with the antibiotic resistance crisis. By using bacteria containing these interference plasmids, we may be able to help those suffering from certain types of resistant infections. Although this approach won't cure those biologically resistant strains, we may be able to put a halt to the supplement route and slow many resistant infections.

The study also highlights a different perspective on antibiotic resistance. Rather than view it as a major hurdle in human health, we can recognize it as yet another addiction in need of a cure. This approach may help to curb the use of antibiotics in the future. Letting the public know they are enabling microbial addicts when they overuse, misuse, and abuse antibiotics may lead to a change of mindset. People may even think twice about asking for an antibiotic at the doctor's office or perhaps not purchase meat from animals raised on antibiotics. In light of the coming post-antibiotic era, we can use any help we can get.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook