Peptides in your skin could be key to fighting superbugs
One of the most alarmingly plausible (and often overlooked) doomsday scenarios is the rise of the superbug, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. But now, scientists have found a new potential treatment – and it was hiding in our skin the whole time.
Our bodies already do a pretty good job of fighting off dangerous bacteria. The immune system keeps a watchful eye out for invading pathogens, but it can’t win every time. So researchers at the Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (InStem) and Unilever have found a way to boost that immune activity.
The immune system fires up its defenses even before bacteria get inside the body. Skin cells produce molecules called antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), which, as their name suggests, kill off microbes before they can cause illness. They work against bacteria, viruses, yeast and fungi, and best of all, these peptides are complex and target several different parts of the invaders, so it’s harder for them to develop resistance.
The researchers on the new study investigated what regulates this process, and found a way to ramp it up. Normally, AMPs are produced when microbes come in contact with skin cells, and the team found that this occurs because of lower levels of a protein called caspase-8. The molecules also seem to play a role in speeding up wound healing.
When they used molecular techniques to artificially lower caspase-8 levels, the researchers found that more AMPs were released from the skin cells. Taking control of this mechanism could lead to new drugs that prevent infections from taking hold, which is particularly useful for people with weakened immune systems.
This new potential weapon in our antibiotic arsenal may sound promising, but it’s not without its own possible pitfalls. If bacteria are known for one thing, it’s their ability to overcome obstacles we place in their path – after all, that’s how we got ourselves into this superbug mess. Other scientists have warned that playing around with AMPs could just make them develop resistance to our natural immune defenses even faster. And that could be far worse than drug resistance.
But in order to prevent a possible future where 10 million people are killed by superbugs every year, it’s important to explore all options. AMPs might end up being one tool of many at our disposal, and thankfully it’s not the only one in development. Others include lights, gels, materials, other predatory microbes, and of course, new antibiotics.
The research was published in the journal Cell Reports.