Can this Newly Discovered Antibiotic Kill the Most Dangerous Superbugs?
Antibiotic resistance is spreading faster than the introduction of new compounds into clinical practice, threatening the evolution of health care.
Thanks to a recent discovery by researchers, however, we may be able to worry a little less.
Scientists have made a major health breakthrough with the discovery of a new type of antibiotic that seems to be better than existing drugs. And it was found in a pile of soil.
Scientists have found that a soil bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, produces a new antibiotic agent which can kill off pathogens that have long been resistant to other antibiotics. The experimental antibiotic, called teixobactin, marks the launch of a new class of antibiotics and is being recognized as a “game changer.”
Discovered by researchers from Germany, Great Britain and the U.S., it is the first time in 25 years that a major antibiotic discovery has been made. Findings were outlined in the science journal Nature.
But beyond the discovery of the drug, an even more remarkable note to take from the findings is the technology that was developed by the researchers.
Ninety-nine percent of potential antibiotics cannot be grown in a laboratory, and so researchers developed the device iChip to isolate antibiotic compounds in their natural environment: soil.
To make the iChip work, a sample of soil is diluted and then poured onto the device, which consists of hundreds of small holes. Because of the dilution, it is hoped that only one microbe is caught in each hole.
Covered with membranes on both sides and placed back in the soil sample, the membranes contain pores that are only large enough for chemical nutrients to flow in but small enough to block the movement of any bacteria.
It has been shown that this method can help nearly one in two bacteria to start growing in the iChip cells, and that three-quarters of the iChip bacteria can then be transferred to and grown in lab solutions.
A Multi-Talented Antibiotic
The newly discovered antibiotic works on a broad spectrum of pathogens, and kills bacteria in a slightly different way from previous medications. It attacks the cell wall of bacteria just like other antibiotics, but it does not use a single mechanism to damage the cell wall’s structure. Rather, it attacks different spots, in different ways, according to Tanja Schneider from the University of Bonn.
To keep up with the multiple attacks, bacteria would have to change in multiple, precise ways to become resistant. And while it sounds unlikely, it is not impossible for pathogens to find a way in a few years or decades.
The new antibiotic has only been tested on mice so far, but with promising results. Scneider noted in the study that “antibiotics with new modes of action are a breakthrough for science.”
The chances of teixobactin becoming a drug suitable for humans is currently hard to estimate, but the odds of drug candidates that work in mice making it through in clinical trials are generally slim. Still, the antibiotic could be chemically modified to make it successful in humans, as well.
Even if teixobactin does not prove suitable for humans, the new cultivation method with iChip should allow many new candidates for antibiotics to become available for future testing.
How healthcare can safeguard itself against cyberthreats
One of the most fundamental lessons from the COVID crisis is that health should always be a priority. In a similar fashion to the human body that frequently fights off viruses and foreign invaders that intend to cause it harm, the sector itself is now a prime target for another type of external threat: cyberattacks.
The figures speak for themselves: between December and January this year, hospitals in the UK were at 89% capacity, with 7,000 fewer available beds than there usually are. As the pandemic increased pressure on hospitals, clinics, and research facilities to create a treatment for patients globally, it has left the sector exposed to hackers who, like a virus, have been targeting it relentlessly and evolving their tactics.
From patient records being held ransom, to fake emails claiming to originate from the UN WHO, the NHS, or vaccine centres, through to attacks on the cold supply chain to find out the secret formula of the COVID vaccine, the healthcare industry is facing constant cyberattacks and struggling to cope. This threat is unlikely to go away anytime soon – and as such, the industry needs to take a proactive, preventative stance to stay safe in a dynamic digital world.
The responsive nature of healthcare – particularly of hospitals – means that efficiency is crucial to the industry’s standard operations. To support this, the sector has been embracing technological advancements that can improve the quality of work, enabling staff to meet pressing deadlines, and enhancing patient care. For example, the industry has been digitising records and improving its ways of working through digital means over the past few years.
This shift is critical to offer high quality patient care; yet, it also means the sector has become more dependent on IT, which can come with a risk if cybersecurity processes employed are deemed as inadequate.
Without the correct security measures in place, the desired efficiency gains realised, can be easily lost in a heartbeat. Simply put, an elementary glitch in the system can have a tremendous ripple effect on many areas, from accessing patient records and conducting scans, to maintaining physical security and protecting the intellectual property of experimental treatment development.
To prevent this, healthcare organisations need to ensure they’re considering cybersecurity as part of their overall digital transformation strategy – and setting the right foundations to create a culture where safety goes hand in hand with patient care.
Before implementing cybersecurity process, healthcare organisations need to assess the potential risks they face. Depending on how much confidential data the trust has, where it is stored, who has access to it and via which means, the cybersecurity strategy and associated solutions will change.
It’s fair to say that a medical device start-up where all employees have a corporate-sanctioned laptop and access data via a VPN will have radically different needs to a large hospital with hundreds of frontline workers connecting to the hospital’s Wi-Fi using their personal device.
These requirements will pale by comparison to a global pharmaceutical giant with offices in multiple locations, a large R&D department researching new treatments for complex diseases and a fully integrated supply chain. Considering the existing setup and what the organisations is looking to achieve with its digital transformation strategy will therefore have an immediate impact on the cybersecurity strategy.
Despite this, there are fundamentals that any organisation should implement:
Review and test your back-up policy to ensure it is thorough and sufficient – By checking that the organisation’s back-up is running smoothly, IT teams can limit any risks of disruption in the midst of an incident and of losing data permanently.
In our recent State of Email Security report, we found that six out of ten organisations have been victims of ransomware in 2020. As a result, afflicted organisations have lost an average of six days to downtime. One third of organisations even admitted that they failed to get their data back, despite paying the ransom. In the healthcare industry, this could mean losing valuable patient records or data related to new treatments – two areas the sector cannot afford to be cavalier about.
Conduct due diligence across the organisation’s supply chain – Healthcare organisations should review their ways of working with partners, providers and regulatory institutions they work with in order to prevent any weak link in their cybersecurity chain. Without this due diligence, organisations leave themselves exposed to the risks of third party-led incidents.
Roll out mandatory cybersecurity awareness training - Healthcare organisations shouldn’t neglect the training and awareness of their entire staff – including frontline workers who may not access the corporate network on a regular basis. According to our State of Email Security report, only one fifth of organisations carry out ongoing cyber awareness training.
This suggests it is not widely considered as a fundamental part of most organisations cyber-resilience strategy, despite the fact many employees rely on their organisation’s corporate network to work. By providing systematic training, healthcare organisations can help workers at all levels better understand the current cyberthreats they face, how they could impact their organisation, the role they play in defending the networks, and develop consistent, good cybersecurity hygiene habits to limit the risks of incidents.
Consider a degree of separation – Information and Operational Technology (IT and OT) networks should be separated.
Although mutually supported and reliance on each other, employees shouldn’t be accessing one via the other. This should be complemented by a considered tried and tested contingency and resiliency plan that allows crucial services to function unabated should there be a compromise. Similarly, admin terminals should not have internet access to afford a degree of hardening and protection for these critical accounts.
As the sector becomes a common target for fraudulent and malicious activity, putting cybersecurity at the core of the organisation’s operations is critical. It will help limit the risks of disruption due to cyberattacks, reduce time spent by the cybersecurity team to resolve easily avoidable errors, and ensure that institutions can deliver patient care, safe in the knowledge that their networks are safe.
Fighting future threats
With technology continuing to change the face of healthcare, the surface area and vectors available for attacks by malicious actors is constantly increasing. With the introduction of apps, networked monitoring devices, and a need for communication, the attack vector is ever expanding, a trend that needs to be monitored and secured against.
To prevent any damage to patients, staff, or the organisation they are responsible for, healthcare leaders must put security front and centre of their digital transformation strategy. Only then can the sector harness the full benefits of technology. Doing this should include implementing cybersecurity awareness training to challenge misconceptions around security, encourage conversation, and to ensure employee knowledge of the security basics and threats faced.
This ultimately allows healthcare organisations to do what they do best: provide the highest standard of patient care, safe in the knowledge that their operations, patients, and data are safe.