The Fake Superbug Cure

Antibiotic resistant bacteria is the latest target for scientific ‘cures.’ But with every ‘breakthrough’ that makes the news, are we actually farther from the truth?

06.21.14 9:45 AM ET

Comrades!  I have marvelous news! Our visionary scientists have found the Achilles heel of yet another enemy of the State—the Superbug!  We have used the weakness of our nefarious foe to expose and defeat him: Gram-negative bacteria may be promoting antibiotic resistance because of its lipid-based cell membrane! But this soft and greedy subversive organelle is no match for the brilliance of our scientists!

So claims the latest dispatch, not from Pravda, but from the journal Nature in an article called, “Structural basis for outer membrane lipopolysaccharide insertion.” The research describes the derring-do of a team of scientists working at University of East Anglia. They have focused their attention not on the cell wall where penicillin works its magic, nor the innards of the cell where commonly used antibiotics like ciprofloxacin (Cipro™) and azithromycin (Zithromax™) do their stuff, but along the delicate cell membrane that sits just under the rugged cell wall and just outside the membrane that binds the cytoplasm (the goo that all the small cellular sub-bits float in). 

The researchers are hopeful that the focus on a different target—the cell membrane—might open the way for development of a new fleet of antibiotics, ones that the crafty bacteria has not (yet) learned to resist. Or as they write so poetically: “The structure, molecular dynamics simulations and functional assays suggest that the hydrophilic O-antigen and the core oligosaccharide of the LPS may pass through the barrel and the lipid A of the LPS may be inserted into the outer leaflet of the outer membrane through a lateral opening between strands β1 and β26 of LptD.” Indeed.

The finding and its absurdly overblown media claims demonstrate that the latest darling of the paranoid set, highly resistant bacteria, has reached full maturity. It now clearly resides in the fast lane with diseases like cancer and AIDS for which a “breakthrough” seems to be reported at least monthly.

And always with the same sort of story line: a group of nose-to-the-grindstone worker bees who beat the odds by ignoring the prevailing wisdom of a world of sticks-in-the-mud too fond of their own rigid ideas. They thumbed their noses at the easy same-old-yesterday approaches favored by the pharmaceutical industry with its need to show an uptick in the second quarter such that now, with the wind beneath their wings, they are soaring to new life-saving heights—all because they had the confidence to follow their dream.  Though it makes for fun reading, it’s just the Bizarro version of the Soviet triumphalism that we all mocked so merrily for decades.

Yet it is easy to understand why there is such an appetite for such obviously unrealistic claims.  Hope truly does spring eternal. Diseases are awful to have and witness. Thousands die every day from cancer and AIDS and infection. Everyone on the planet has lost a loved one to one if not each of these conditions. And the business of science, medicine, and faith itself is to restore or at least to prop up hope, that most complex vapor. Without it we are lost; with too much we are blind—where is the balanced middle?

No one knows or will ever know but this much is certain: there is a price to be paid for routinely lifting hopes out of proportion to the truth found in latest tiny step forward from the realm of hard science. Today’s faux breakthrough becomes tomorrow’s demoralizing letdown when the headline is brought to the doctor’s office. I have heard “Doc, did you hear the big news?” hundreds of times, complete with a scrap from a newspaper or something printed off the Internet. The power of undeservedly positive thinking may have a role in relationships and business deals.

But in the matter of human health, it can do only one thing: break the already fragile heart of a desperate patient.