Jon Barron on Antibiotics & Antibiotic Resistance

In this week’s excerpt from Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, Jon Barron talks about antibiotics and antibiotic resistance.

“In a moment, we will discuss how to maximize your immune function, but we first need to explore how modern medicine’s approach to dealing with immune system problems has led us to the brink of disaster. Antibiotics are chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. They are the primary drugs that doctors use to support the immune system. Until recently, they were considered one of modern medicine’s greatest achievements. Unfortunately, their usefulness is rapidly diminishing, and, as it turns out, they may ultimately be responsible for creating some of mankind’s greatest plagues. How did this happen?

Penicillin, the first modern antibiotic, was discovered by Dr. Alexander Fleming in 1928. But just four years after drug companies began mass-producing it in 1943, microbes began appearing that could resist it. Since then, we’ve seen penicillin-resistant strains of pneumonia, gonorrhea, and hospital-acquired intestinal infections join the list. And it’s not just penicillin—bacteria resistant to most of the other antibiotics of choice have also proliferated.

Antibiotic resistance to synthetic drugs is almost impossible to stop since it is the result of the simple rules of evolution. Any population of organisms, bacteria included, naturally includes variants with unusual traits—in this case, the ability to withstand a particular antibiotic’s attack. When this antibiotic is used and kills the defenseless bacteria, it leaves behind only those bacteria that can resist it. These renegade variants then multiply, increasing their numbers a millionfold in a single day, instantly becoming the dominant variant. In other words, the very act of using an antibiotic creates the opportunity for resistant strains to flourish.

It’s important to understand that antibiotics vary in the way they kill microbes. Penicillin, for example, kills bacteria by attaching to their cell walls and then breeching those walls, thus killing the bacteria. Erythromycin, tetracycline, and streptomycin, on the other hand, kill bacteria by attacking the structures inside the bacteria (ribosomes) that allow them to make proteins, thus also destroying the bacteria. Because each antibiotic is a single compound and one-dimensional in its approach, it’s not that hard for microbes to ‘evolve’ around such attacks. For example, microbes resistant to penicillin have developed cell walls that prevent the penicillin from binding. Similarly, other variants prevent antibiotics from binding to ribosomes, thus neutralizing the effect of those antibiotics.

Where it gets really frightening, though, is that bacteria swap genes like politicians swap favors—which brings us to vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort. When all other antibiotics failed, doctors knew they could count on vancomycin. But then vancomycin resistance was discovered in a common hospital microbe, enterococcus. By 1991, thirty-eight hospitals in the United States reported the variant. Just one year later, vancomycin-resistant staph bacteria were observed with the same gene. What this means is that not only are bacteria programmed to ‘evolve’ defenses against antibiotics, but once they produce such a defense, they are also programmed to rapidly share that defense with other strains of bacteria, thus rapidly spreading the resistance.”

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The Individual Cells of Your Immune System

In this week’s excerpt from Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, Jon Barron details all of the individual cells that make up your immune system.

“In the following paragraphs, I’m going to summarize the function of the immune system. While a full discussion would take several volumes, I would like to provide a brief overview, a sense of how this marvelous system works.

All blood cells, both red and white, begin as stem cells in your bone marrow. These undifferentiated cells begin to assume individual characteristics and become either red cells (the oxygen carriers) or white cells (the cells of the immune system). Further differentiation divides the white cells (also called leukocytes) into four main types of cells: lymphocytes, phagocytes, granulocytes, and dendritic cells.”

immune cell taxonomy





“Lymphocytes are white blood cells that serve as the key operatives of the immune system. In a healthy body, not under attack, they number about one trillion. There are three main classes of lymphocytes.

  • B-Cells—Each B-cell is programmed to make one specific antibody to defend against a specific invader. An antibody is a soluble protein produced by B-cells that’s
    capable of binding to and destroying or neutralizing a foreign substance (antigen) in the body. Antibodies belong to a particular family of nine proteins called the immunoglobulins. So, one B cell produces an antibody to defend against a particular strain of flu, whereas an entirely different B-cell produces the antibody for the strep bacteria, and so on. B-cells work primarily in the fluids of the body, defending against “foreign” invaders and toxic molecules. They are not capable of defending against the body’s own cells that have “gone bad.” Once a B-cell encounters the particular invader that it is built to defend against, it produces many large plasma cells, “factories” that produce millions of specific antibodies and release them into the bloodstream. Once the invader has been eliminated, the B-cells stop production of the plasma cells.

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