How AI is joining the fight against superbugs

through Katharina Richter, University of Adelaide

Scientists are looking for new strategies to win the war against superbugs.

Invisible to the naked eye, bacteria are constantly evolving in their quest for survival.

Over the years, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has inadvertently fueled the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as ‘superbugs’.

These superbugs are equipped with ingenious defense mechanisms, such as building slime fortresses called biofilms, in which bacterial communities are well protected from antibiotic and immune system attacks.

In 2019, 1.27 million people died globally from antibiotic-resistant infections.

However, scientists are not backing down. They are arming themselves with sophisticated treatment strategies and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to combat this growing menace.

And there is global recognition of the importance of this work. In August 2023, G20 health ministers, meeting before the key leaders’ summit in September, committed to a comprehensive strategy to continue the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

Think of antibiotics as soldiers fighting bacteria on the battlefield.

Doctors once used antibiotics like precision-guided missiles, selectively targeting specific infections. However, over time, a different picture emerged. Antibiotics were overused in medicine, prescribed for minor ailments where they were ineffective, such as being launched at harmless missiles. A prematurely ended antibiotic course allowed the resilient bacteria to survive and bring the lessons of the war back into their ranks.

In addition, agriculture and livestock used large amounts of antibiotics at low doses to promote livestock growth and prevent disease, flooding the environment with antibiotics and arming the enemy with our own weapons.

These missteps enabled the bacteria to develop adaptations and resistances over time. Bacteria that managed to survive the antibiotic attack gave their descendants resistance.

This process has led to the emergence of superbugs that can become resistant to many antibiotics, rendering once-effective treatments useless.

Over time, some bacteria manage to survive the attack by developing resistance to their progeny.

This process, accelerated by the misuse of antibiotics in medicine, agriculture and livestock, has led to the emergence of superbugs that have become resistant to many antibiotics, rendering once-effective treatments useless.

See Remedies for Foodborne Superbugs

Adding to this challenge is the formation of biofilms.

By default, bacteria prefer to stick together and build slimy walls around themselves. In this ‘slime castle’, bacteria are highly protected from any enemies.

This makes the bacteria in a biofilm 1,000 times stronger to resist antibiotics or immune system attacks than single bacteria.

The close proximity of bacteria enables them to ‘chat’ with each other, fine-tune defenses and exchange information on how to develop resistance to antibiotics.

Biofilms are involved in 80 percent of infections in the human body—such as surgical site infections, nonhealing wounds, and implant infections—that are extremely difficult to treat.

The scientific community has recognized the urgent need for new approaches to dealing with antibiotic resistance and biofilms, especially since no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since the 1980s.

Researchers are exploring a variety of strategies, some of which have promising potential:

Bacteriophages or phages are viruses that infect and kill certain bacteria. They can be designed to target antibiotic-resistant bacteria without harming beneficial individuals. Scientists are developing an effective ‘phage cocktail’ that can combat bacterial infections.

The human immune system produces antigenic peptides and molecules known as antibodies to fight infection. Researchers are exploring the potential of these natural protectors as treatments. Antibiotic peptides can directly target bacteria, while antibodies can tag bacteria for destruction by immune cells, increasing the body’s ability to clear the infection.

Cold plasma, a state of matter containing energetic ions, free electrons and reactive particles, is being investigated for its antimicrobial properties. Cold plasma can inactivate bacteria by damaging their outer membrane, disrupting their cellular processes. This emerging field, known as ‘cold plasma medicine’, may offer an antibiotic-free and non-invasive approach to treating infections.

Researchers are investigating strategies, such as small molecules (which are small enough to pass through the biofilm slime and reach the bacteria inside), nanomedicine or oxygen therapy, that can weaken the bacteria’s defenses, making them vulnerable to antibiotics again. By interfering with bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics, enhancers can give existing treatments a second life.

Bacteria communicate through chemical signals in a process called quorum sensing. This communication allows bacteria to coordinate their activities with the formation of biofilms. Quorum sensing inhibitors are designed to disrupt communication, prevent biofilm formation, and make bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics and the immune system.

These agents target the structural integrity of biofilms, detaching them and exposing the bacteria within to antibiotics. Disruptors such as enzymes, nitric oxide therapy, essential oils, or gallium-based drugs (which look like food to bacteria, but are actually toxic to them) allow antibiotics to reach and kill the bacteria by breaking down the protective slime walls of biofilms. Colonies more effectively.

Known for its gene-editing capabilities, CRISPR-Cas technology can be used to target and disable antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria, potentially restoring their sensitivity to antibiotics.

While these innovative strategies show promise, their development and optimization require significant research and experimentation. This is where artificial intelligence steps in.

AI algorithms can analyze vast databases of molecular information to identify potential compounds with antibacterial properties.

By simulating the interactions between drugs and bacteria, AI accelerates the drug discovery process, helping scientists uncover new treatment options more efficiently.

In addition, AI-driven models can simulate the behavior of biofilms and bacterial colonies, helping researchers devise strategies to effectively disrupt these communities.

This computational approach provides valuable insights that guide the development of treatments that can prevent persistent infections.

The race against superbugs is a race against time.

The collaborative efforts of researchers around the world, along with innovative treatment strategies and AI-supported insights, provide hope for a brighter future.

As science offers potential new treatments, responsible antibiotic use is a key part of ensuring existing treatments remain effective.

This means that not only do doctors and their patients have a role to ensure the necessary use of antibiotics, but the agriculture and food sectors also need to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock.

Research funding is important, so policymakers also have an important part to play in this fight.

Dr. Katharina Richter is a biomedical researcher and science communicator at the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on developing effective treatments against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and translating them from the laboratory to real-life applications and improving community health literacy through effective science communication.

Dr. Richter’s research has been funded by the University of Adelaide, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Medical Research Future Fund, the Hospital Research Foundation Group and the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Originally published in Creative Commons through 360 information™.

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