Dr. Cesar Arias
Dr. Cesar Arias

When The New England Journal of Medicine wanted to update its readers on the war against antibiotic- resistant bacteria, it turned to faculty members in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

Drs. Barbara Murray and Cesar Arias accepted the journal’s invitation to write a commentary and focused their article on a technique that is fast tracking efforts to develop badly needed antibiotics.

Each year in the United States, more than 2 million people are sickened by infections tied to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tragically since their discovery almost a century ago, antibiotics have been losing their effectiveness due to overuse and other factors.

In the 1920s, Alexander Fleming discovered the most famous antibiotic of them all – penicillin – by chance. The discovery involved an open window, a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria, and an airborne fungus. To his surprise when he returned after a weekend away, the petri dish had been contaminated by the fungus, which was killing the bacteria.

Dr. Barbara Murray
Dr. Barbara Murray

Over the next several decades, many antibiotics were developed from bacteria grown from soil. “All the low-hanging fruit were picked, and then it was suddenly hard to find new compounds to develop antibiotics,” said Murray, holder of the J. Ralph Meadows Professorship in Internal Medicine.

That is changing with the development of an isolation chip, or iChip, which is providing researchers with new microorganisms to check. This is a way to culture bacteria that were previously non-cultivatable, from the soil in a laboratory, said Murray, the division director and immediate past president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

These efforts are already paying off. “Using the iChip technique, researchers recently identified a compound that acts against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, including in animal models, and tuberculosis,” said Murray, who described this as a “very encouraging finding.”

-Rob Cahill, Office of Public Affairs