If you had to pick the one medical discovery that has saved the most lives, antibiotics would certainly be on the short list. Each new antibiotic that emerges is another wonder drug that seems to kill everything in sight. But an antibiotic is not forever. After bacteria are exposed to the drug for a while, the pathogens adapt, the antibiotic loses its potency, and scientists are off to find the next gorilla-cillin. That search has driven investigators to extract new antibiotics from all over the living world: plants, animals, soil, fungi, and even other bacteria. We may soon be able to use an entirely new class of antibiotics harvested from our own skin, thanks to new research from right here at the University of Michigan, where I work.
Our skin protects us from all kinds of physical insults. It also harbors the first line of defense against bacteria: very small proteins called peptides. These natural antibiotics were first discovered in the 1980s in frogs and have since been found on many other animals, including us. While these antimicrobial peptides(AMPs) are good at what they do on the skin, there have been two main obstacles to getting them to work inside us: They’re easily broken down by enzymes made by bacteria (and by us) and they have a tendency to stick to—and damage—our own cells.
Dr. Neil Marsh has come up with a way to keep AMPs from sticking where they shouldn’t, while at the same time protecting them from breakdown by bacterial enzymes. His group took its inspiration from Teflon, which uses a nonreactive fluorine coating to keep food from sticking to pans. Similarly, Marsh's group capped the sticky tips of AMPs with almost totally inert fluorine, which prevented the peptides from reacting with the enzymes that normally break them down. Marsh’s Teflon-tipped AMPs may even work a bit better than natural, untreated AMPs, at least against some bacteria.
Yes, the same technology that keeps your eggs from sticking to the pan may someday be a key part of a new family of antibiotics. Not only is this good news in the never-ending battle between humans and bacteria, it’s also a reminder that you can never predict how or when one discovery—even in the kitchen—will lead to the next. Maybe Pop-Tarts have antiaging properties (although it's doubtful they could touch the power of yogurt). But if it turns out that they do, remember you heard it here first.
Robert W. Lash, M.D. is an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. His clinical interests include thyroid disease, diabetes, endocrine disorders in pregnancy, osteoporosis and metabolic bone disease, and medical education. A member of the LLuminari team of experts, a board certified internist and endocrinologist, Dr. Lash has an active clinical practice and is a hospitalist at the University of Michigan.