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Home » The Fight Against Microorganisms: Dianne Fair (Transcript)

The Fight Against Microorganisms: Dianne Fair (Transcript)

Dianne Fair at TEDxFSCJ

Here is the full text of Dianne Fair’s “The Fight Against Microorganisms”.


What if you or a loved one were diagnosed with an infectious disease: strep throat, an ear infection, bacterial pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a sexually transmitted disease?

Now imagine that there are no drugs that will work in effecting a cure for your infection. This is pretty scary. This is happening right now.

There are people dying, just like they used to before 1928, when penicillin was discovered.

Are we about to fall into the edge of the volcano? That would not be so good.

What I would like to propose today is that we need to encourage young and old scientists to explore new opportunities and new therapies. Not just antibiotics.

What else do we have? This is one of my heroes, a Scottish microbiologist who became Sir Alexander Fleming. He discovered penicillin in 1928, and he was worried about antibiotic resistance, too. Very, very concerned.

Antibiotics? Well, what are they?

Think of them as tiny chemical weapons that are produced by bacteria and fungi, so that they can kill off competitors in a nutrient-limited environment. These genes for antibiotics have been around for 4 million years, long before we humans needed Z-Paks. So this is not a new thing.

Antibiotic resistance can be easily detected, and antibiotic resistance is another weapon. Do you remember Spy vs Spy, if you’re old enough? So it’s an escalation of weapons. The antibiotic producers, that’s one weapon. The antibiotic resistance is another weapon.

Antibiotic resistance is one of those things that my students – and there’s two of them – I told you I was going to use the picture. You can detect antibiotic resistance by growing plate cultures of bacteria. On the left you have E. coli; on the right you have Staph aureus. And those little paper discs are treated with antibiotics like penicillin, tetracycline, Vancomycin, you guys did this, too. This is not new stuff. They did great, they did great by the way.

When you look at antibiotic resistance, this means that we’re now facing Super Bugs. And I don’t mean “super” in a good “Yay!”, “super” in a scary way.

What about bacteria? You’ve heard of MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staph Aureus. This one scares me. What about tuberculosis– multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis. They’re out there. These infections are very scary and they may take one of your loved ones. Or, God forbid, they’ll take you. C. diff, Clostridium difficile– this one attacks the weakest of the patients, the elderly and the very, very young.

Well, before we all get bummed out, there have to be some good guys. There have to be. My training is soil microbiology so I love dirt. Especially the dirt in my garden. This used to be my son’s swing set, but when he got too big, and the swing set started getting tippy, I said, “You know what? It’s going to be a garden box.” Soil bacteria, soil fungi, they are natural antibiotic producers. This is one avenue to explore.

How about we start looking at more soil samples on Mars, or other extraterrestrial places? Places even on Earth, slopes of volcanoes where bacteria recolonize. I’m up for that, I’m totally going to volunteer. This is cool, this is sci-fi, this is Star Trek. How about we use viruses that attack bacteria to do the dirty work for us?

The T-even bacteriophages, one of my favorites is T4. The “even” stands for the even number. What they do is they attack bacteria and kill them, without antibiotics. This technology has been around, believe it or not, since the 1930s. It was discovered in France by a microbiologist. The technology was advanced to clinical applications in the 1950s.

But there’s a catch. This was behind the former Iron Curtain. This was in Russia, and Poland, and the original Georgia. Not our Georgia. This technology is very effective. What if pharmaceutical companies could maybe advance the technology to treat a patient with a virus, instead of an antibiotic or another type of drug? There’s a lot of philosophy.

Viruses, most people think, are bad or terrible or the bad guys. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right? Well, not so fast. Sometimes, the technology does go awry, and the viruses will carry genes that we don’t understand. So, I told you I like Star Trek.

[“The enemy of my enemy is the one I shall kill last.”]

It could happen. Think of all the wonderful, spicy cuisines that we love: Thai food, Indian food, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Eastern European, West African, Caribbean, Tex Mex. Yay, Taco Tuesday! When you look at all of the herbs and spices that have been studied, but only by anecdotal evidence: turmeric, and peppers, and onions, and garlic, and lemon grass, and allspice, and cinnamon, and coffee, and tea, and beer. Yay!

What would happen if more people grew their own food? I garden a lot at home, with my son and my partner. And all of these produce came from our garden. No, you can’t have any, I ate it already. But I’ll trade you. What have you got to trade? We make beer, we make cheese, we have chickens. They’re awesome. Our little miniature dinosaurs.

What about encouraging young scientists to work on science fair projects that might advance one tiny field of this type of research? So, when your child comes home, and they have their first science project assignment … Oh, God. Put a smile on your face. Stock up on those art supplies, stock up on that alcohol, and say, “Yes, honey, we can do this!”

My son’s first project is due in January. Oh, please help me. When we went to Hawaii in February, we really did go to a science fair. So look, even school children in Hawaii do science fair projects. How bad would that be? Some of them were really, really good. You’ll like this one.

There’s an anthropologist, an American anthropologist called Jeff Leach. And after his daughter was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes, he moved to Tanzania, and he went native, living with a hunter-gatherer tribe. He ate what they ate — lots and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables; lots and lots of roots that they had gathered. Not a whole lot of protein, unless that had hunted and killed on that particular day.

You also eat a lot of dirt when you consume fruit and vegetable material. But what he found in the year when he was taking stool samples and blood samples, was that in humans, with a higher rate of intestinal worm infections, they have a lower rate of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, like diabetes, like Crohn’s Disease, like celiac, like irritable bowel, like rheumatoid arthritis.

Now, I’m not saying go out and eat dirt and eat worms, unless that’s what you’re into. But what if some aspect of the parasitic worms, like tapeworms and hook worms, was actually beneficial to our health? Because the immune system is so busy modulating and controlling the worm infection, that it doesn’t have time to pay attention to the inflammation elsewhere in our bodies.

His project is called The Human Food Project. He’s got another one that you might be interested in, so Google it on break. It’s called The American Gut Project. And for a small fee, from anywhere from $99 to $10,000, you can send in a fecal sample for testing. And he’ll even do fecal samples from your dog, to study the American human gut, and dog gut as well. Tempting. I saved the best for last.

FMT: Fecal Mass Transplantation. This is used in 2013, the United States approved this for treatment of C. diff. It actually works. When you take healthy donor fecal material, and you transplant it into a recipient, they have a better than 90% chance of recovery from their C. diff infection. It sounds really gross. Because here’s what you do.

You can make a frozen poo pill, as long as the material has been screened and freed of parasites; you can receive it by an endoscope; you can receive it by an enema.

[How about a big bowl of “Poop Soup”?]

This technology has been around since the 4th or 5th century in China. There are recipes online for yellow soup. Last night, I went online and did some research. There are Pinterest pins, for do-it-yourself at home. There are recipes. I haven’t tried it yet. It’s on my list for 2017. No, I haven’t tried it.

But what if, what if, your loved one has exhausted all the options? Antibiotics are not working, they’ve had multiple surgeries. They’re depressed, they’re in the hospital, they’re losing hope. What if something this simple could actually help them? I’d do it. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I hope that with this very short talk I have stimulated your imagination to at least learn more, read more, find out more.

Antibiotic therapy won’t always be with us. But there are other avenues to explore. Yeah, I’ve read all those books. That’s not my nightstand, I promise. But people look at you funny when you’re waiting at an airport to get on a plane for a flight somewhere, and you have one of these books in your hand.

But then you mention that you heard about it on NPR Science Friday, and then it’s all good. It’s all good, they’re happy with you. Anyway, thank you for your kind attention.

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