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Healthful Hints: Thanks for bacterial antibiotics

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This Thanksgiving, consider being medically thankful for bacterial antibiotics. It is appropriate to do so because antibiotics have made, and continue to make, our lives much longer and better than before they were discovered in plants. They alleviate suffering and prevent death, when and where they are available. They are not as accessible in many areas of the world as they are in the U.S.

We have decided that bacteria belong in the plant kingdom. All organisms, plant or animal, including us, are in this existence together, both in harmony and contention. The concept that substances from one organism may kill another organism (antibiosis — against life) goes back over 2,500 years to the Chinese, who discovered and routinely applied therapeutic properties of moldy soybean curds to boils, carbuncles and other infections. (Don’t try this at home!)

The first “modern” investigators to recognize that some microbes may produce antibiotics against other bugs were Pasteur and Joubert in 1877. They found anthrax bacteria wouldn’t grow in the presence of “common” bacteria either in urine culture or when both were injected into animals. We associate the beginning of the “antibiotic era” with Paul Erlich, who found an arsenic compound in 1904 through systematic research that killed the syphilis-causing bacterial spirochete Treponema pallidum.

The next antibiotic milestone was achieved when Alexander Fleming returned to his lab from a holiday in 1928 and discovered the mold Penicillium notatum had accidentally contaminated an open culture plate of Staphylococcus and killed the bacteria. It took Fleming 12 years to get chemists interested in isolating penicillin and mass producing it, which finally happened in 1941. The first mass produced antibiotic was sulfanilamide as the brand Prontosil in the mid-1930s. The arrival of penicillin ushered in the golden age of antibiotics. Since then, somewhere between 100 and 200 have come along, and some gone.

Thanks to plentiful drug choices, we no longer tremble when we get a boil in the middle of our face, which caused death 30% of the time pre-antibiotics. Hardly anyone today has recurrent ear infections that eat into their mastoid bone and cause a chronic abscess that necessitates significant surgery. Very few have such sinus infections that necessitate the formidable Caldwell-Luck drainage surgery. An infected toe or finger can be cured with antibiotics and prevent amputation or potential death.

We have not “conquered” bacteria by any means. The bug battles continue. Many breeds have developed resistances to several antibiotics. Yet somehow new antibiotics keep coming along in different forms, such as protein chains called peptides, or old drugs revisited, or bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, etc.

We are constantly trying to maintain some biological balance with our unseen parasitic partners that outnumber us perhaps as much 10 to 1 in this dog-eat-dog/bug-eat/kill-bug world. We should give thanks that antibiotics have helped give us some of that balance and have allowed us to live longer lives with much less misery. (I’ve heard that bacteria means the back door of a cafeteria …) Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, since 1978 has worked Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua and Red Wing. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and a couple dixieland groups. And he does enjoy a good pun.


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