How many of the lists of ‘things to watch for in 2015’ dared to predict progress in the war on antibiotic resistance? After all, 2014 was the year when awareness of the antibiotic problem spilled onto the front pages, led by a gloomy landmark report by the World Health Organization released in April. In a vote to determine the focus of a new research effort funded by the UK government, the British public named antibiotic resistance as one of the most pressing challenges of modern times. The outlook for public health and the future was grim.
Well, whisper it, but there may finally be some good news. In a paper published on Nature’s website this week, a team of researchers announces the discovery of a brand new antibiotic (L. L. Ling et al. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14098; 2015). Called (by them) teixobactin, the compound is produced by a specific type of soil bacterium — the cultivation of which was previously impossible (see also G. Wright Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14193; 2015). There could be more undiscovered antibiotics out there. There could be lots more.
Just as important as its discovery is the finding that teixobactin triggered no detectable genetic resistance in the bacteria it targets. With creditable understatement, the authors of the paper conclude: “The properties of this compound suggest a path towards developing antibiotics that are likely to avoid development of resistance.”
The discovery, of course, does not get us off the hook. Years of testing lie ahead and, even under the most optimistic scenario for teixobactin, growing resistance to other antibiotics remains a serious problem. The good news — and at this early stage, it is good news — must not drain momentum from emerging efforts by policy-makers and others to tackle the dreadful and short-sighted squandering of precious antibiotic resources.
The positivity does not end there. In a News story on page 130, we detail the promising results of another drug that could help to address a crucial clinical need. This time, the drug — ketamine — is far from new. An anaesthetic used on the battlefields of the Vietnam War, it is now drawing attention for its potential to treat depression.
This potential is colossal, and much of that comes from the demand. As Nature highlighted in a special issue last year (see nature.com/depression), depression causes a greater burden than any other condition, yet the outlook at present is bleak. New drugs are proving difficult to come by, which is one reason that existing compounds such as ketamine are under the spotlight. Encouraging — if early — trial results suggest that the drug is both effective and fast-acting, even in people who have tried other therapies with little success.
Just as with teixobactin, much could still derail the early promise of ketamine for treating depression (and other mental-health conditions such as suicidal behaviour and bipolar disorder). But given the number of people who rely on antibiotics and who are desperate for help with depression, early promise is a lot better than the pessimistic messages that have previously dominated. So, with a smile and an optimistic attitude, here is a prediction for the new year: both ketamine and teixobactin could yet feature in the ‘highlights of 2015’ lists when they appear in December. Not bad for the second week of January.
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