Scientists Developing “Smart” Antibiotics that Activate with Light and Heat

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It’s an arms race. People get sick from some bacteria. Scientists develop antibiotics to fight that bacteria. Some of that bacteria becomes resistant to the antibiotic. So, scientists develop a better or stronger antibiotic. And the cycle continues and continues, breeding ongoing generations of so-called “superbugs.”

To help break this vicious cycle, scientists from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are developing a technique wherein antibiotics can effectively been turned on and off as needed. Instead of being active all the time, and thus perpetuating the generation of superbugs, the antibiotics can respond to light and heat. This way, when you’re not sick, the antibiotics can remain dormant. When you do need some help, the antibiotics can be activated and you can get better.

These “smart” antibiotics can then be just as effective in fighting infections, but they don’t leave some residuals around to create the next generation of superbugs resistant to that antibiotic. And at the same time, the healthy and good bacteria floating around in your system can remain largely unscathed. The idea here is that the antibiotics start out as quinolones, shaped like the letter C. When “activated,” then morph into the letter Z and become waste products, no longer capable to binding to bacteria and thus preventing the bacteria from developing a resistance.

There’s still more work to be done, to be sure, but this looks like a promising new direction to pursue in medicine.


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