Think of germs as gangsters. One thug lurking on a corner you might outrun, but a dozen swaggering down the street? Yikes.
Bacteria make their own gangs, clustering quietly in the body until there's a large enough group to begin an attack. This is the next frontier in fighting drug-resistant superbugs.
The idea: Don't just try to kill bacteria. The bugs will always find a way to thwart the next antibiotic.
The new goal is to disable bacteria's ability to sicken, so scientists can throw superbugs a one-two punch. And attempts to bust up germ gangs are leading the race to create these novel anti-infectives -- using everything from compounds in Pinot Noir to some popular bone-building drugs.
"It's a stealth approach," says chemist Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute, who is developing a vaccine against notorious drug-resistant staph that prevents the bacteria from ganging up.
"We're trying to find the Achilles heel in drug-resistant bacteria," adds Matthew Redinbo of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill -- who did find one.
Redinbo's team discovered that certain osteoporosis drugs blocked one E. coli germ from spreading antibiotic-resistance genes to another. Interrupting this recruitment of new gangsters confused the drug-resistant bugs enough that they committed suicide, leaving only easy-to-treat germs behind.
All of this research is in very early stages. But Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls disarming bacteria a long-needed new approach.
It is "like lasers going in to destroy certain parts of the bacteria as opposed to a bomb that blows the whole thing up," Gerberding told Congress recently.
Indeed, despite a rise in bacteria that withstand today's best treatments, there are few novel antibiotics under development -- and germs have evolved such complex ways to survive antibiotics' frontal assault that new ones eventually will wear out, too.