“I love [the heart sign] maggots” is emblazoned on a t-shirt lying on a chair in the office of Dr. Yamni Nigam, Associate Professor in Biomedical Science at the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University, in the U.K. We had to first tell you how qualified she is before we mention that Dr. Nigam also founded the Swansea Maggot Research Group (yes, you read that right), in 2001, “which focuses on the medicinal maggot;” i.e., it’s wound healing and antimicrobial properties, the latter of which has garnered the Swansea team worldwide attention this month.
A little background. Battlefield surgeons have long understood the wound healing properties of the maggot. By inserting “tiny clean baby medicinal maggots” into a wound, the maggots feed on dead, infected tissue, clean away wound debris, eliminate infection, and appear to promote healthy tissue formation that helps the wound heal and close.
But it’s the anti-infection properties of the insect that offer the real promise. Just last month, for example, the United Nations announced that “resistance to antibiotics … is the greatest and most urgent global risk.” That’s because antibiotic resistant infections are believed to kill 700,000 people around the world each year; it’s estimated they’ll cause more deaths than cancer by 2050; and emerging evidence suggests that deaths by infection in the U.S. may well be their number one cause of death right now.
The basic problem is this: No new class of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987. This has given bacteria time to evolve mechanisms that defeat our drugs, thus giving rise to so-called super-bacteria such as MRSA, extensively drug-resistant TB, and the possibility of pan-resistant gonorrhea, to name just a few.
So why don’t we just come up with new antibiotics? Dr. Gerry Wright, an infectious disease expert at McMaster University, explains:
Antibiotics exist in nature, mostly in organisms found in the soil. Yes, you have to extract from these organisms the molecule with the antibiotic property, and that means scientists working in their labs. But the active ingredient that becomes the antibiotic is a naturally occurring one, and therein lies the rub: we have taken from nature all the molecules known to exist that have antibiotic properties. That’s why no new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the 80s; all we’ve done since then is find the same kind of molecules over and over again. In other words, we have long-since picked all the low-hanging fruit.
Back to Dr. Nigam and the anti-infection properties of maggots. Her team found that they secrete a substance that has “excellent antibiotic activity.” What they want to do now is: (1) isolate the active ingredient (as Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin from mold, in 1928) in these secretions that is killing the bacteria, and (2) test it against a range of pathogens to see which ones it’s effective against.
Notice the other bit of good news. Unlike with wound therapy, we won’t have to actually go to the pharmacy and fetch a bag of maggots. By isolating the antibiotic molecule of interest, then synthesizing it in the lab, it will come in the more palatable tablet form.
Here’s Dr. Nigam with further details: