Next Generation Antibiotics Could Be Turned On and Off Using Light

As we continue fighting the most dastardly pathogens with new and improved antibiotics, the list of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains only grows longer—leaving us somewhat helpless against the threat of superbugs.

We're lucky to have some CDC staffers back to help weather the current salmonella outbreak, but it's about time we find a more permanent solution—so we don't get stuck with a whole lot of stubborn bacteria and nowhere to run.

Scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have been working on a technique that, with a few tweaks, could prove to be viable. The idea, in a nutshell, is to create a "smart" antibiotic that can respond to both light and heat. That way, it could be turned on and off as needed, both to protect healthy bacteria from unnecessary damage and deactivate residual antibiotics that could encourage resistance.

Some antibiotics are designed to stick to and inhibit the enzymes that help keep those bacteria alive. This means that they have to be a specific shape in order to bind effectively—altering the shape even the slightest bit could render it useless. The antibiotics used by the researchers are called quinolones, which are usually shaped like the letter C. When tagged with light-sensitive molecule azobenzene and blasted with light or heat, they morph into the letter Z. And with that, they become waste products, no use to bacteria looking to bulk up against antibiotics.

So now what? Turns out you can't shoot just any old light into someone's body (well, without worrying about pesky side effects). The researchers' next steps will involve coaxing the antibiotics to respond to ultraviolet and infrared light. Here's hoping that happens before the superbugs take over. [Nature via PopSci]

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