Science Diet: A Post-Antibiotic World?


1. Antibiotic-resistant bugs pose a global threat


It is difficult for us to imagine the world before antibiotics were discovered, when bruises and injuries we now consider routine could lead to life-threatening infections. Today, apart from their role in such everyday situations, antibiotics are used to prevent infections during many treatments which require suppressing the immune system — for instance, during chemotherapy or organ transplantation. Without antibiotics, such treatments would be unthinkable and as dangerous as the illnesses they seek to cure.

The microbes that cause illnesses are hardy organisms which can reproduce with astonishing rapidity. With tens of thousands of generations to adapt and evolve, they sooner or later become resistant to drugs. Sir Alexander Fleming — who discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic — foresaw this. He also knew that this process would be speeded up if the drug was misused, as it is now, through casual and inappropriate usage and, even where their usage is justified, through insufficient dosages. If the dosage isn’t strong enough to kill all the microbes, the ones that survive will be the ones which are resistant to the drug. There is another factor too: In most countries, animals raised for their meat are fed antibiotics in an effort to keep them healthy and promote growth. Consumption of the meat from such animals is suspected to further speed-up the evolution of drug-resistant microbes.

A schematic representation of how antibiotic resistance is enhanced by natural selection. Credit: Wykis/ Wikimedia Commons.

As journalist Maryn McKenna writes, with each new antibiotic discovered, the time taken by microbes to develop resistance to it has shrunk. Many strains of bacteria have become resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics. The day is not far off — and it is inevitable — when even the strongest antibiotic would become impotent. Already, an estimated 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. As a report by the World Health Organisation states, bugs have developed antibiotic-resistance throughout the world, the consequences of which could be “devastating” — diseases once thought to be conquered, such as TB, typhoid, pneumonia, and diarrhoea, could re-emerge as global killers.

Are we not developing new antibiotics in an effort to stay ahead of the microbes, an evolutionary-pharmaceutical arms race? No new classes of antibiotics have been discovered for 25 years. Because they lose their usefulness so quickly, drug companies are reluctant to invest in research, wary of not being able to recoup their costs.

A post-antibiotic world, though, would spell the end of modern medicine as we know it. Even routine surgeries would become dangerous. Public health experts have now called on world governments to establish a global organisation to fight the rising threat from drug-resistant bugs. Such an organization should, they say, find ways to curb the use of antibiotics and help the drug industry by incentivising drug development. But the process of developing a new drug takes at least 10 years. Antibiotic resistance should be seen as a threat no less serious than terrorism and climate change, they say.

For the moment, some countries such as as Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, have introduced regulations to curb the medical and agricultural use of antibiotics. Ultimately, though, given how relentlessly bacteria evolve, there  is no drug that can solve the problem forever.

2. “Indian science needs public funding, but not government control.”

Mathai Joseph, a former researcher at TIFR and former head of research at TCS, and Andrew Robinson, an author, write in Nature about what ails Indian science.

Successive governments have made empty promises to increase the R & D expenditure to 2% of India’s GDP — it remains at about 0.9% now. The triumphant party in these general elections, the BJP, makes no mention of increasing investment in scientific research in its manifesto. Neither does it talk about encouraging research that is fundamental but unlikely to be of immediate practical utility. It is worth noting that among the emerging economies, India spends the least on R & D.

The problems afflicting Indian science are clear: The Department of Atomic Energy, and others such as the Departments for Space, Science & Technology, and Biotechnology, are hampered by a bureaucratic culture that does not foster innovation. And nearly 60% of India’s science budget is now spent on these scientific departments, the CSIR, and the DRDO. Scientists measure success by their position on the administrative ladder — and they tend to be promoted based on their length of service, rather than achievement — leaving actual research to their juniors. While funding for projects is easier to secure than in some other countries, there are issues here too — such as limited travel support for research students, especially for participation in international research conferences. Also, it is difficult for researchers in India to move from one institution to another.

The authors suggest several measures to revive Indian science: One, create an empowered funding agency outside the main government structures. Two, ensure planned rotation of administrative roles and responsibilities. Three, encourage collaborative research by groups across different institutions. Four, invest in regenerating the laboratories at many poorly-funded and neglected universities; they currently get only around 10% of the R & D budget but still produce most of the country’s PhDs. Five, encourage the private sector to invest in research — currently, it is essentially excluded from basic research because of government rules that severely inhibit public–private collaboration.

Writing in The Hindu, Prof. V V Krishna of JNU says that there is a policy paralysis in S & T. Research is given a low priority at most of our universities and they consequently end up as mere teaching institutes. The situation has become worse over the years: India had thrice the scientific output of China in the 1990s with a comparable budget. Today, the situation has reversed.

A victim of all this is the India-based Neutrino Observatory, work on which is currently stalled, pending Cabinet approval. With this delay, the Indian scientific community risks acquiring a reputation for not delivering on time, which would make collaboration with other countries in future projects more difficult. Perhaps predictably,we could end up being usurped by the Chinese who are building their own neutrino observatory.

3. The Abel Prize 2014

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has awarded the 2014 Abel Prize — considered the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics — to Russian-born mathematical physicist Yakov Sinai of Princeton University, for his “fundamental contributions to dynamical systems, ergodic theory, and mathematical physics”.

Yakov Sinai.
Yakov Sinai. Credit: Zweistein/Wikimedia Commons.

A dynamical system is one whose state changes over time according to a fixed rule. Given this rule and the initial conditions, the future of the system is, in principle, completely determined for all time to come — this is called determinism. However, in the real world, the initial conditions cannot be specified to arbitrary accuracy and small changes to the initial conditions can result in drastically different outcomes. Eventually, as the system evolves with time, predictability is lost even though no randomness is involved. This can also happen if there are too many constituents to the system under consideration — such as the infamous three-body problem in classical mechanics, or the problem of turbulence in fluid flow. Such behaviour is called deterministic chaos. On the other hand, there are systems subject to random influences, such as the jiggling of particles due to thermal noise. These are called stochastic processes.

Sinai connected the world of deterministic dynamical systems with the world of probabilistic (stochastic) systems by developing the use of probability and measure theory in the study of dynamical systems. He developed mathematical tools for exploring such behaviour, and identified quantities that remain the same even if the dynamical system becomes unpredictable. Along with the great Russian mathematical physicist Andrei Kolmogorov, one of the founders of modern probability theory, Sinai showed that there is a quantity — now known as Kolmogorov–Sinai (K-S) entropy — that quantifies this unpredictability of a system. Systems whose K-S entropy is zero can be predicted exactly; those with a non-zero K-S entropy are not wholly predictable; they include chaotic systems.

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