YOU CAN THANK YOUR IMMUNE S YSTEM for protection from
the many disease-causing bacteria you’re faced with every day.
You only get an infection when it drops its guard. Yet current
antibiotics have just one narrow focus: Kill the bacteria.
“We only treat bacterial infections with chemicals that, in a test tube,
show that they are lethal to bacteria,” says Victor Nizet, M.D., professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of
Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. That approach has worked
for years, but we now face a growing threat of antibiotic-resistant
bacteria. We also now have a greater appreciation for the negative
health consequences of wiping out beneficial microbes during a
course of antibiotics. Instead of targeting bacteria, Nizet says, we
need to find new ways to give the immune system an advantage.
To illustrate, Nizet compares bacterial infections to a home rob-
bery, and your immune system to a ninja. “If your home is usually
protected by a ninja, but a thief breaks in while he’s momentarily
napping, it makes more sense to just wake up the ninja, rather than
call in an entire SWAT team that might wreck your whole house.”
Nizet and his team are now taking a more holistic approach
to fighting bacterial infections. Instead of focusing solely on
killing the bacteria, they attack on two fronts: 1) boost the
immune system so it’s more capable of fighting the infection on
its own, and 2) block the mechanisms bacteria use to establish
infection and defend themselves against the immune system.
These two approaches parallel the two hottest approaches to
treating cancer—immunotherapy, in which cancer cells are
“de-cloaked” so they’re more easily detected and cleared by the
immune system, and targeted therapies, in which a drug targets a
molecule specific to cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.
“It’s time to apply some of the creativity we’ve seen in the war on
cancer to find new ways to treat bacterial infections,” Nizet says.
“After all, the number of deaths worldwide are almost equal.”
“IT MAKES MORE SENSE TO JUST WAKE UP THE
NINJA, RATHER THAN CALL IN AN ENTIRE SWAT
TEAM THAT MIGHT WRECK YOUR WHOLE HOUSE.”
BY HEATHER BUSCHMAN, PH.D. ’08
TRITON | WINTER 2016 14