Like the rest of healthcare, antibiotics have transformed dentistry. Advanced oral infections that once eluded successful treatment are routinely stopped with the use of these “wonder drugs.” But their overuse over the years has given rise to dangerous “superbugs” resistant to many antibiotics.
Antibiotics are one of the 20th Century's most significant healthcare achievements. Drugs like penicillin played a major role ending the global threat of tuberculosis, cholera and bacterial meningitis. Over the last few decades, more antibiotics have been developed to defend against an even wider array of bacterial dangers.
But along the way doctors and dentists began prescribing antibiotics for all manner of illnesses including viral infections like colds or flu for which they're less effective. They've also been increasingly used as a preventive measure, including inclusion in animal feed to fight disease.
But our tiny biological nemeses are adaptable. As bacterial strains come in contact with greater amounts of antibiotics, individual bacterium that survive transmit their resistance to subsequent generations. This can produce new strains like Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that are resistant to methicillin and other common antibiotics that once contained them.
There's deep concern that these new resistant strains, often recent incarnations of old diseases once thought defeated, will lead to higher rates of sickness and death. Increasing resistance could also make common procedures like those performed by dentists and oral surgeons, much riskier to undertake.
To combat this, pharmaceutical companies are racing to create new drugs to compensate. Recently, they've received an encouraging sign of hope in this battle from an unlikely source: viruses. Researchers in Tel Aviv, Israel have discovered an antagonistic protein to bacteria among a group of viruses called bacteriophages. The protein, injected into a bacterium, commandeers the cell's DNA function to aid virus reproduction, which kills the host.
In the words of one researcher, this makes these particular “enemy of our enemy” viruses our “friend.” Although the discovery is still a long way from practical use in antibiotics, harnessing it in future drug versions could help pack a greater punch against resistant bacteria.
In the meantime, providers and patients alike must practice and advocate for stricter protocols regarding the use of antibiotics. The viability of tomorrow's healthcare is on the line.