Dr. Barbara Murdoch of ECSU and her colleague Dr. Eric Patridge of the Yale Center for Molecular Discovery recently exhibited their work on antibiotic resistance at the United Nations. Their exhibit was sponsored partially by the United Nations Association of the USA and the Institute for Life Sciences Collaboration as part of a yearly NGO (non-governmental organization) Conference through the United Nations Department of Public Information. Murdoch and Patridge work with Yale’s Small World Initiative, an innovative program that is attempting to crowdsource the discovery of new antibiotics.
The Small World Initiative combines the real world need for new antibiotics with improving STEM education. There is an expected shortfall of one million people in STEM fields over the next decade. Currently, less than 40% of students who enter a STEM field in college graduate in one. “There are two main reasons students leave STEM: the way they were taught was not engaging and failed to make them interested in science, and they were not given hands-on experience,” said Dr. Murdoch. With the Small World Initiative, students can work to discover new antibiotics by testing soil samples for antibiotic properties. Currently, around 75% of antibiotics come from the soil. By doing these experiments students gain hands-on experience and help to find solutions to real world problems.
25,000 people in the US and European Union die every year from infections due to antibiotic resistance. This is only likely to increase and intensify in the future. Antibiotic-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis have already started spreading across the globe. MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus) and C. diff (Clostridium difficile) infections are becoming increasingly common. “We’re running out of antibiotics and there isn’t a lot of research going on to find new ones,” said Murdoch. If little or no progress is made, Dr. Murdoch believes we are looking at “a global pandemic of people dying due to a lack of effective antibiotics,” she said.
Being able to speak out about the need for antibiotic research was a powerful experience for Murdoch. “It was one of the most enriching things I’ve done in my life. To be at the UN just floored me. Meeting so many people from diverse backgrounds trying to come together to realize common goals was terrific,” she said.
The exhibit itself was highly interactive. Visitors could conduct their own chemistry experiment in 30 seconds. “Someone said ‘if I had been taught chemistry this way, I would’ve stayed in the field!’” said Dr. Murdoch. As a result of Murdoch and Patridge’s exhibit, the conference’s declaration included a section calling upon all countries to reduce the use of antibiotics and join public/private partnerships to facilitate the development of new antibiotics.
There are many steps average people can take to help prevent further antibiotic resistance from developing. One major reason resistance occurs is the over-prescription of antibiotics. “Don’t take antibiotics if you don’t need to. You have to be an educated consumer. Ask your doctor if you actually have a bacterial infection. If you don’t have one, you shouldn’t be taking antibiotics,” said Dr. Murdoch. Taking antibiotics as prescribed can also help. If you stop a regimen when you feel better, rather than when instructed, there can be bacteria left alive who may then adapt to resist the antibiotic. A major source of resistance comes from commercial farmers feeding their animals a steady stream of antibiotics. Eating antibiotic-free meat and dairy can help reduce the overuse of antibiotics, though Murdoch notes America’s labeling means that it is often difficult to find truly antibiotic-free products. Living healthily and supporting the good bacteria that reside within us is also important to reducing the need for antibiotics. This can be achieved through proper nutrition by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise.