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Israeli lab finds out why some germs dodge drugs, opening door to life-saving fix

Bacteria are safe from antibiotics when they’re in a chaotic state, says Hebrew University team, hoping drug-makers will respond with a new class of antibiotics

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Bacteria just emerging from the newly discovered 'chaotic' state, in a Hebrew University lab. (Hebrew University/Orit Gefen/Yoav Kaplan)
Bacteria just emerging from the newly discovered 'chaotic' state, in a Hebrew University lab. (Hebrew University/Orit Gefen/Yoav Kaplan)

Bacteria are dodging antibiotics while they’re in a “chaotic” state, Israeli scientists have found, suggesting that many lives can be saved by targeting these drug-evading germs.

A research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is suggesting that, faced with antibiotics, some bacteria are caught in a state of “chaos” in which cellular activity “goes haywire.”

In this state, the bacteria “don’t follow any of the normal rules of cellular activity and don’t act or divide as normal,” biophysicist Prof. Nathalie Balaban told The Times of Israel. Then, when the course of antibiotics is over, they recover completely and regrow, she said, stressing that this pattern hasn’t been documented until now.

She believes that her team’s finding, newly peer reviewed and published in Nature, could prove key to fighting infection, because it can trigger drug developers to work on a new class of antibiotics to fight bacteria that are in the ”chaotic” state.

“We may need something from a different class of chemicals entirely,” Balaban said, adding that a successful drug could potentially save many lives.

“When you give a first dose of antibiotics to bacteria, some will be killed and others will stay in a disrupted or chaotic state that hasn’t been studied before, remain in it, and therefore antibiotics won’t work on the bacteria,” she said.

“Most antibiotics target bacteria that are reproducing; in other words they work on ‘happy,’ growing bacteria, not those in the disrupted state that we have documented.”

A production line for antibiotics. (iStock via Getty Images)

Balaban, together with her colleague Prof. Oded Agam and PhD student Yoav Kaplan, observed and documented this state of bacteria by working in their lab with individual cells of a strain of E. coli, bacteria commonly used in lab experimental work.

As well as dodging antibiotics and interfering with patient recovery, the researchers believe that hardy bacteria may be responsible for part of the problem of antibiotic resistance.

“It’s not commonly understood how resistance comes about, and we think this disrupted state may be causing bacteria to acquire mutations and become resistant,’ said Balaban.

“These bacteria may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance, and if this is the case, understanding their mechanism may move us one step closer to finding new solutions to the problem.”

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