Nobel Laureate speaks on antibiotics and drug resistance


Ramakrishnan cited several pioneers of antibiotic research in his talk.Ramakrishnan cited several pioneers of antibiotic research in his talk. (hi-res image)

Many antibiotics work by blocking protein production in the ribosomes of bacteria. But irresponsibly or incorrectly using antibiotics can contribute to bacterial immunity to antibiotics. Monday's Eugene P. Wigner Distinguished Lecturer, Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, spoke of the importance of gaining a detailed understanding of the ribosome and using antibiotics appropriately in addressing the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for studies in the structure and function of ribosomes and said, "No matter what you do, whatever drug you make, resistance will evolve. It's a consequence of evolution."

Whether it's herbal derivatives or antibiotics, people have been taking supplements to help with illness for centuries. The study and development of antibiotics, however, is still in its adolescence, with some of the first effective treatments having been discovered in the 1930s.

Part of the problem, Ramakrishnan said, is that antibiotics are often misused. For instance antibiotics are sometimes prescribed for the common cold or flu, or are mixed into animal feed, contributing to the increase of bacterial antibiotic tolerance.

Better targeting when using antibiotics could help correct the trend though. Ramakrishnan uses crystallography and other atomic visualization techniques to piece together the structure of ribosomes, the area where many antibiotics attack. After solving ribosomal shape, he said, it's easy to see how and where antibiotics bind to ribosomes.

Besides focusing on the ribosome and correctly using antibiotics, Ramakrishnan also stressed the benefits of having a good surveillance system for outbreaks and emerging diseases as well as working to control the extent of infections.

The Eugene P. Wigner Distinguished Lecture Series picks up again on Wednesday, Dec. 10, with Susan Soloman, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry & Climate Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 -  Chris Samoray ,  865.574.4399,  July 29, 2014

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