Quarter of human drugs disrupt gut microbiome, study finds. Is this breeding superbugs? | Miles O'Brien Productions

Quarter of human drugs disrupt gut microbiome, study finds. Is this breeding superbugs?

I’ve got a gut feeling this one is going to interest you.

New findings show that about a quarter of non-antibiotic drugs have side effects impacting the growth of at least one species in the gut microbiome–the bacteria that live in our gut.

This could be the first steps down a new avenue for studying antibiotic resistance.

[bctt tweet=”Non-antibiotic drugs may contribute to antibiotic resistance. They might not have been designed as antibiotics to begin with, but research is now showing they could have that unintended effect.” username=”MilesOBrien”]

What is the microbiome?

The human microbiome is defined as the “10-100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells harbored by each person, primarily bacteria in the gut.” That means that there are roughly ten times more bacterial cells than human cells for each person. Folks, we are way out numbered, so we best be nice to our bacteria!

Indeed, these bacteria are our friends. We are only now beginning to uncover the vast impact they have on human health. There is good reason to believe the microbiome may play a role in development and nutrient uptake: microbiome samples transplanted from obese mice to mice without any bacteria made them obese. Early studies have even shown that children with autism also have unusual gut microbiomes, teasing a gut-brain connection.

Our understanding of the gut microbiome is just emerging from apothecary to modern medicine. Photo: Matt Briney | Unsplash. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Our understanding of the gut microbiome is just emerging from apothecary to modern medicine. Photo: Matt Briney | Unsplash.

Many drugs act as antibiotics

But this research on the impact of the microbiome on human health is in its infancy. There is still much to learn.

Researchers at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany wanted to understand how pharmaceutical drugs affect the microbiome. They looked at drugs that specifically attack bacteria as well as those meant for other purposes.

The scientists tested the effects of over 1,100 drugs on 40 representative gut bacterial strains, and found that roughly a quarter of all drugs affected the growth of these bacteria in a lab setting. Particularly surprising was that some drugs, like certain antipsychotics, had profound impacts on the microbiome even though they ostensibly had nothing to do with bacteria management.

“The number of unrelated drugs that hit gut microbes as collateral damage was surprising,” co-author Peer Bork said in a press release. “Especially since we show that the actual number is likely to be even higher. This shift in the composition of our gut bacteria contributes to drug side-effects, but might also be part of the drugs’ beneficial action.”

Commonly used drugs affect our gut bacteria. Image: Iulia Cartasiova | EMBL. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Commonly used drugs affect our gut bacteria. Image: Iulia Cartasiova | EMBL.

A new source of antibiotic resistance?

Further studies in animal models and humans will be needed to confirm these laboratory results, but understanding how the gut microbiome reacts to a wide variety of pharmaceutical drugs could help develop better versions of these drugs.

One avenue of research highlighted in the report is the surprising and troubling finding that even non-antibiotic drugs may contribute to antibiotic resistance. They might not have been designed as antibiotics to begin with, but research is now showing they could have that unintended effect. And, as microbiologist Lance Price wrote for us, “whenever we use antibiotics, we potentially fuel the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

WATCH: Miles reports from the front lines of the fight against antibiotic resistant superbugs.

Banner image credit: freestocks.org on Unsplash.

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