Magazine article Insight on the News

New Weapons against 'Bugs': Bacteriologists Predicted That Bacterial Diseases Had Been Conquered. They Were Wrong

Magazine article Insight on the News

New Weapons against 'Bugs': Bacteriologists Predicted That Bacterial Diseases Had Been Conquered. They Were Wrong

Article excerpt

The new Star Trek movie features a race of automatonlike aliens called the Borg who relentlessly wage war on the Federation. As soon as the heroes devise an effective defense, the villains modify their strategy to overcome it, accompanying each new attack with the chilling message, "Resistance is futile."

That situation is similar to the one confronting scientists in their struggle to prevent epidemics. Many biochemists fear that people are vulnerable to aggressive new strains of bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics. The offspring may be new, but the family names are frighteningly familiar; E. coli, salmonella, chlamydia and meningococcus.

"Bacteria are dangerously good at developing resistance to antibiotics," according to Martti Vaara of the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Because the organisms are so simply structured and prolific, they can produce several generations in a matter of days, adapting to harsh environmental conditions including chemicals meant to destroy them. Facets of modern life - jet travel and worldwide food distribution, for instance - help spread the bacterial mutations among the worldwide populace.

At the same time, the newest members of the antibacterial arsenal are little more than "improved versions of existing drugs," Vaara says. Because bacteria have evolved to defend against the conventional onslaught, researchers are working on new medicines with a sense of urgency.

Urgency, but not hopelessness. Ultraprecise techniques for studying the microstructure of bacteria - including X-ray diffraction, which provides for 3-D computer models of their molecules - have produced breakthroughs. One such advance is a compound developed by Merck Laboratories of Rahway, N.J., that seems to be a potent new weapon against organisms such as E. coli. The compound, assigned the Borglike name of L-161,240, quickly has cured laboratory tory mice infected with the often-deadly disease.

L-161,240 inhibits the growth of lipid A, an oily substance commonly protecting the outer cell membrane of disease-causing bacteria. Lipid A prevents many antibiotic compounds from entering bacterial cells, according to Christian R. …

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