Beyond Antibiotics

When antibiotics stop working, time to release the inner ninja inside us all.

You can thank your immune system for protection from the many disease-causing bacteria you’re faced with every day. You only get an infection when it drops its guard. Yet current antibiotics have just one narrow focus: Kill the bacteria.

“We only treat bacterial infections with chemicals that, in a test tube, show that they are lethal to bacteria,” says Victor Nizet, M.D., professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. That approach has worked for years, but we now face a growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We also now have a greater appreciation for the negative health consequences of wiping out beneficial microbes during a course of antibiotics. Instead of targeting bacteria, Nizet says, we need to find new ways to give the immune system an advantage.

To illustrate, Nizet compares bacterial infections to a home robbery, and your immune system to a ninja. “If your home is usually protected by a ninja, but a thief breaks in while he’s momentarily napping, it makes more sense to just wake up the ninja, rather than call in an entire SWAT team that might wreck your whole house.”

Nizet and his team are now taking a more holistic approach to fighting bacterial infections. Instead of focusing solely on killing the bacteria, they attack on two fronts: 1) boost the immune system so it’s more capable of fighting the infection on its own, and 2) block the mechanisms bacteria use to establish infection and defend themselves against the immune system.

These two approaches parallel the two hottest approaches to treating cancer—immunotherapy, in which cancer cells are “de-cloaked” so they’re more easily detected and cleared by the immune system, and targeted therapies, in which a drug targets a molecule specific to cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

“It’s time to apply some of the creativity we’ve seen in the war on cancer to find new ways to treat bacterial infections,” Nizet says. “After all, the number of deaths worldwide are almost equal.”