New antibiotic-free method to treat infections

There have been increasing numbers of different types of bacteria that have become resistant to some antibiotics: Tuberculosis, some forms of Staphylococcus aureus, some Enterococci, strains of gonorrhea and others. The “classic” antibiotics that used to kill these organisms, quite quickly and nicely now no longer work.

Sometimes now, combinations of antibiotics need to be used simultaneously, sometimes for weeks at a time. Or perhaps a brand new antibiotic needs to be given.

Formerly, many of the above infections could be treated with oral medications, some minor ones could have been treated with antibiotic creams. Now the antibiotics often have to be given intravenously. Even with all of this technology (combining antibiotics, using newly developed antibiotics, giving them IV), sometimes the bacteria still win and the patient may die.

Researchers in Switzerland have come up with a different approach that sometimes may not even require antibiotic use.

Antibiotics via Shutterstock

Antibiotics via Shutterstock

Some bacteria kill and injure cells by producing toxins that damage human’s cell membranes. Once a hole is produced in the cell membrane, the cell almost always dies. The injured cell has a great deal of difficulty keeping out what should be kept out and reigning in what needs to stay inside. Too much of substance X leaks out, too much water gets in, potassium levels change and the cell expires.

When the bacteria are growing, they release toxins into the environment. A white blood cell coming to the defense of its sister cells has bacteria; toxin stick to it, and is destroyed — much like surrounding tissue cells. So, if we could neutralize the bacterial toxins, they wouldn’t be able to attack the immune cells as those cells close in on the invading bacteria.

What the researchers did was to create tiny vesicles that could attract toxins, just as cell membranes attract toxins. But once the toxins bound to this artificial liposome, there were stuck and couldn’t attack any surrounding human cells. As more liposomes sucked up toxin, there was less available to bind with and destroy healthy cells like white blood cells. The white blood cells could then attack and destroy the invading bacteria and eventually clear up the infection. Many times this would occur in the absence of any antibiotics at all being given.

The liposomes are basically just microscopically-sided droplets of naturally-occurring fats that can attract and bind some bacterial toxins. They act as a “toxin-decoy.” The toxin comes into contact with the liposome, then physically can’t tell if it is a liposome or a part of a cell membrane. It binds there and becomes useless.

The scientists have used this technique in mice. It’s worked against infections with two different types of bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae. In both cases, experimental infected mice, given the liposomes, survived the infections, even when NOT given antibiotics, while the control mice died.

Perhaps, if necessary, when used in humans the liposomes could be added to antibiotics in very severe, life-threatening infections, if needed. Thereby both attacking the bacteria and attacking one of their weapons at the same time.

So far this technique can only work against certain specific bacteria . They need to be Gram positive and produce cytotoxins that can be inactivated by the liposomes. But the authors are continuing their work to see if it can be applied to other organisms.

The equally amazing news is that, since the liposomes aren’t antibiotics, the bacteria can’t become resistant to them. That has been a major problem with resistance in the past.

These researchers deserve this year’s award for Thinking Outside of the Box.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • wondertwinalpha

    This reminds me of what they have been doing with some Ebola patients. The Ebola virus is able to damage a persons body to the point of death before the body is able to mount an effective immune response to the virus, so many people die from the infection. However, those that do survive the infection have antibodies to the Ebola virus in their blood. Taking blood from these survivors (now free of the virus), and giving the antibody-containing plasma to newly infected patients buys them time to mount an immune response since these antibodies can keep the virus suppressed long enough for that to occur. In this case, the liposomes are able to keep the bacterial toxins at bay, much like the antibodies keep the Ebola virus at bay, so the immune system can do it’s job. Pretty cool!

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  • Gregory Tinkler

    I fail to see what part of ‘the toxins destroy white blood cells’ (not a quote, btw) is not “protective” of the bacteria. Regardless, whether liposomes act on the bacteria or the product of the bacteria, evolution is going to occur.

    Are you implying that my claim is the bacteria will “evolve resistance” to them? Because I never meant to imply the bacteria would become resistant to the liposomes. They will, however, continue to evolve survival strategies that circumvent the action of this class of drugs, just as they have with every other.

  • shanob

    Coconut oil has a lot of the same properties in fighting infection, fungus as well.

  • guestferd

    But, DOES the liposome technique confer a survival advantage to one type of disease bacterium over another? With this new technique, with toxin decoys blotting up lots of toxin, more white blood cells will survive long enough to kill more of the bacteria which they’re programmed to attack, and which they’re capable of destroying. However, there might be other harmful bacteria lurking around the body, which other bacteria the white cells aren’t programmed to attack, or which they’re incapable of destroying.

    Will THOSE other bacteria now have an even more open environmental niche?

    Or something?

  • guestferd

    Ok, this question of mine now doesn’t make any more sense to me than does the quoted passage from Dr. Thoma.

    Maybe the following is what we’re now looking at.

    The equally amazing news is that, since the liposome technique doesn’t confer a survival advantage to one type of disease bacterium over another, it is hoped that the technique won’t provide a wide open environmental niche into which more deadly strains of bacteria will radiate and multiply.

  • guestferd

    “The equally amazing news is that, since the liposomes aren’t antibiotics, the bacteria can’t become resistant to them. ”

    You mean, none of the targeted bacteria is currently able to distinguish between cell and decoy, and none will ever develop this capability and pass it on to future generations of bacteria?

  • disqus_tu7SEHpgGp

    Except, per the article, toxins do not “protect” bacteria, at least, not directly. Toxins directly do the damage that kills, not the bacteria.

  • Silver_Witch

    Exciting News Doc. Where have you been – I miss your informative articles….they are always enlightening and often, like this one, hopeful.

  • Mike F

    Much of what I’ve read about the subject of resistance involves the overuse of anti-bacterial cleaning products, and more importantly, the use of prophylactic doses by the millions in animal feedlots and animal-raising operations. Another though smaller concern was patients not taking the entire complement of anti-bac meds given to them.

    I recall reading some fifteen or so years ago (Scientific American?) about phages, which were apparently widely used in the CCCP.

  • BigGuy

    This is good news.

  • Gregory Tinkler

    “As more liposomes sucked up toxin, there was less available to bind with and destroy healthy cells like white blood cells. The white blood cells could then attack and destroy the invading bacteria and eventually clear up the infection.”

    The bacteria doesn’t have to “be aware” that anything happened to the toxin; natural selection will kick in when the toxin is no longer able to do the job of protecting the bacteria from the body’s defenses. Bacteria that produce increasingly “liposome-insensitive” (for lack of a better term) toxins will have a competitive advantage, survive longer, and those genes will propagate into the population.

  • How much of the resistance problem is doctors handing out antibiotics to everyone who comes in with a sniffle expecting a magic pill? I’m still shocked at how many people don’t seem to understand that antibiotics don’t do anything against viral infections. Everyone has known about the resistance problem for decades but for a long time the drug companies kept finding new antibiotics. Lately not so much (and not for lack of trying). I’m glad there are promising alternatives because we’re going to need options.

  • docsterx

    The bacterial toxins aren’t antibodies. In autoimmune diseases the body creates autoantibodies (a protein directed against some part of that same body) that damage or destroy cells. I doubt that the exact same process would work for autoimmune diseases. But this might serve as a under pinning that could lead to something similar.

  • docsterx

    Good thought. But antibiotics interact directly with the bacterium on a physicochemical level. The liposomes interact with a bacterial product that has been released from the bacterium. The bacterium’s chemistry can’t respond since it isn’t “aware” that anything is happening to the released toxin.

    Resistance has also come about by use of antibiotics in animal feed (for no good scientific reason). More antibiotics are placed in animal feed than are used by humans world-wide. And there are other factors that contribute to resistance: incomplete dosing of a prescription, using antibiotics when they are not indicated, etc.

  • Gregory Tinkler

    “The equally amazing news is that, since the liposomes aren’t
    antibiotics, the bacteria can’t become resistant to them. That has been a
    major problem with resistance in the past.”

    This is almost EXACTLY the same mindset that people had about antibiotics,
    which led to overuse, and a dangerous way to think about the problem.
    Inactivating bacterial toxins also puts a selective pressure on the
    bacteria, and eventually they will evolve toxins which aren’t subject to
    inactivation by liposomes. Or, some other survival strategy we aren’t anticipating yet.

  • loona_c

    “So, if we could neutralize the bacterial toxins, they wouldn’t be able to attack the immune cells as those cells close in on the invading bacteria” Does this have implications for helping autoimmune diseases (like MS)?

  • GarySFBCN

    Fascinating – using flystrip as a model!

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