Scientists searching for ways to make antibiotics work better

Antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise

At least 2 million Americans will develop an antibiotic-resistant infection this year. Each year, 23,000 Americans die from an antibiotic-resistant infection.

These resistant infections are on the rise and researchers say it’s something that should concern all of us. Drugs that used to work -- like penicillin or amoxicillin -- often don’t anymore.

Scientists are searching for ways to solve this ever-growing problem. What they’re coming up with is promising.

“The days when you can give a patient an antibiotic and you were pretty darn sure it was going to work are pretty much gone," said Dr. Corrie Detweiler, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Bacterial infections that could once easily be cured now have potential to kill. Detweiler’s team wants to make antibiotics more effective. They searched through 14,000 compounds and found three that show promise.

“We’ve been able to find some chemicals, some compounds, that inhibit bacteria from pumping out antibiotics,” Detweiler said.

Many bacteria have developed efflux pumps that pump out antibiotics meant to kill them. Detweiler’s compounds block those pumps.

“If we can inhibit those efflux pumps, then we essentially re-sensitize that bacterium to a particular antibiotic," Detweiler said.

CU Boulder Neuroscientist Dr. Pamela Harvey said students research thousands of compounds looking for new antibiotics.

“In general, one in 10,000 compounds tested will become a drug in the pharmacy for you,” Harvey said.

For Harvey, the research is important. It’s also personal.

“My dad got pneumonia over the summer. This is a guy who rides motorcycles and goes on trips with his friends. Two weeks later, he passed away from an antibiotic-resistant strain of pneumonia,” Harvey said.

It’s been a tough road, but she remains focused on her work.

“The problem is not going away. It’s getting worse," Harvey said.

Last year, one of Harvey’s students had a hit on one of the thousands of compounds under review. It’s now under study to test its efficacy on a resistant form of salmonella that causes typhoid fever.

Detweiler said there are simple steps we can take to reduce our risk of infection. That includes treating even the smallest of cuts with Neosporin or alcohol. And if you’re given a course of antibiotics, it’s important to take them exactly as prescribed.