Last week, news broke that the hunt for new antibiotics has led scientists to look up people’s noses for useful bacteria. It’s actually not the first time researchers have gone digging into noses for antibiotic gold. And it might not even be the most off-the-beaten path location they’ve sniffed out yet.
It’s an ongoing quest that grows in urgency as certain strains of bacteria continue to show up in hospitals that don’t respond to any known antibiotic. And while researchers are making promising discoveries in a variety of places, the path to developing a new drug remains a long and expensive process that often ends in failure.
Here’s a look at some of the places scientists are “bioprospecting” for drug-making microbes to fight a range of dangerous diseases.
This antibiotic success story started on the fringes of a golf course near Tokyo, Japan, where Dr. Satoshi Omura found the bacterium Streptomyces avermitilis. The discovery led to the development of a drug called Ivermectin, which is used to treat several parasitic worm infections — it also won Dr. Omura the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Ivermectin is credited with saving millions of lives and treats diseases like river blindness, which affects people living in extremely poor countries.
Men’s Beards And Cats Noses
Researchers at the University College London have found that beards a teaming with bacteria that could be used to kill other bacteria. In fact, according to one of the researchers, they managed to find at least 100 different isolates after swabbing just 20 beards. About 25 percent of these showed antibiotic properties. They even found that one of the strains could be used to fight a drug-resistant strain of E. Coli.
The same researchers have also been looking at cat’s noses and even household items for other useful bacteria.
According to microbiologist Dr. Naowarat Cheeptham, a potential hiding spot for superbug-fighting antibiotics could be deep underground in caves.
“We are racing against the clock in a way,” Dr. Cheeptham told Bloomberg, explaining that too many patients are dying from infections that should be easier to treat.
Dr. Cheeptham and her team have been analyzing cave bacteria for antibiotic properties. But in the 14 years she has been searching, the team has only come close to forming a chemical structure that could be turned into a drug one time. And even if she is successful, she points out that it could take up to 25 years to make a new drug.
Fungus-Farming Leafcutter Ants
Scientists at the University of East Anglia in the UK are looking for a big breakthrough in a tiny place — on the backs of leafcutter ants. Here’s how it works: ants chop down swathes of rainforest canopy and then carry the plant material back to their nests where they use it to feed a fungus called Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, which they eat. It’s good news for the fungus, which thrives in the cozy, humid environment.
The fungus is also protected from disease by being exposed to a bacteria found on the ants’ bodies. Several strains of this bacteria have also been shown to have antibiotic bacteria that scientists are hoping to develop into a novel drug.
Last week, a group of German scientists announced that they screened nasal bacteria for bacteria that fights Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to difficult-to-treat infections.
Sure enough, the researchers found that strains of Staphylococcus lugdunensis produced an antibiotic that effectively combatted S. aureus skin infections in mice. The team said that the compound also had potent antimicrobial activity against a range of bacteria, but said the discovery is just one small step to solving the wider issue of antibiotic shortages.