The Lede, Monday, March 26, 2018
By David Royse
A win in the battle against our unseen enemy, the bacteria
There was a medical research story that showed up in an academic journal over the weekend that could mean we’ll all make it another decade.
Sigh of relief.
If you don’t work in infectious disease or have a condition that requires lots of hospitalization, and therefore lots of exposure to infection-causing bacteria, the rise of superbugs probably is low on your list of big picture concerns. Hospital doctors and nurses, especially in the world’s big cities, see it differently.
You can take your seat belts, your early cancer detection techniques, your defibrilator – all great things – but the miracle lifesaving breakthrough of the 20th Century, perhaps the biggest reason our life expectancy is 76 to 81 years (depending on if you’re male or female) instead of 58, as it was in 1930, is antibiotics.
But in the last decade or so, heavy use of penicillin and other antibiotics and the resulting adaptation by bacteria to those antibiotics have created a class of “superbugs” immune to all of our antibiotic drugs.
Four years ago the World Health Organization said strains of bacteria that were immune to all known antibiotics had spread to every continent and warned about a future where antibiotics would be useless against many infections and that we are headed for a new era when “minor” infections would once again kill lots of people, as they did in waves up until this past century.
The world got some hope a couple years ago when American researchers discovered teixobactin. It’s a natural antibiotic that was discovered in soil, and it kills many of the bacteria that are immune to traditional antibiotics. But figuring out how to synthesize it and turn it into a drug was a different question.
That has now changed as well.
Over the weekend, researchers in Britain published a paper saying that they’ve synthesized teixobactin and, even more importantly, they used it in a clinical research setting – killing a bacterial infection in mice.
The drug could help defeat antibiotic resistant pathogens such as MRSA and VRE, which can’t be killed by any known traditional antibiotics.
“Translating our success with these simplified synthetic versions from test tubes to real cases is a quantum jump in the development of new antibiotics, and brings us closer to realizing the therapeutic potential of simplified teixobactins,” said Dr Ishwar Singh, a specialist in novel drug design and development at the University of Lincoln’ in the UK.
Of course eventually, some bacterial will develop resistance to this as well, and we’ll have to continue the war. But this may signal a major battle won that keeps us ahead of the little bugs for another few generations.
That’s good news.
Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Aren’t Good Enough Yet
The startling news that a self-driving test car failed to stop for a pedestrian, killing her, several days ago may have been a signal of broad problems in Uber’s self-driving technology. Uber is just one of several companies testing autonomous vehicle technology.
The New York Times had a good (and important) story on Friday that points to several problems testers are finding in Uber autonomous vehicles that suggests they are farther away from being road-ready than the company may have led many to believe.
“The cars were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs. And Uber’s human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects,” said the story, by Daisuke Wakabayashi.
If you’ve followed tech companies, you may not be surprised by the reported scenario – lots of executive pressure to hit a deadline to meet public and investor expectations, whether the product is really ready or not.
More from the NYT story, which you can read in full here:
“Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California last year, its cars went an average of nearly 5,600 miles before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. As of March, Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per “intervention” in Arizona, according to 100 pages of company documents obtained by The New York Times and two people familiar with the company’s operations in the Phoenix area but not permitted to speak publicly about it.
Yet Uber’s test drivers were being asked to do more — going on solo runs when they had worked in pairs.
And there also was pressure to live up to a goal to offer a driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives.”
The cars, and the hype, probably need to both slow down a bit.
NOTES FROM THE AGE OF DISRUPTION:
Is calling for stronger privacy controls. LedeTree
Is apologizing for the Cambridge Analytica damage at Facebook in full page ads. TechCrunch
Is selling its local operations in Southeast Asia, ceding market to Singapore-based Grab., WSJ
Plans to fight Google with cheaper iPads. The Verge
As always, I welcome your thoughts. @daveroyse on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org