How Dirt Could Save Humanity From an Infectious Apocalypse
By PETER ANDREY SMITH
Jan 14 2018
Nobody scours Central Park looking for drugs quite the way Sean Brady does. On a sweltering Thursday, he hops out of a yellow cab, crosses Fifth Avenue, and scurries up a dirt path. Around us, the penetrating churn of a helicopter and the honk of car horns filter through the trees. Brady, a fast-talking chemist in his late 40s who sports a graying buzz cut and rimless glasses, has a wry, self-deprecating humor that belies the single-minded determination of his quest. He walks along restlessly. Near the lake, we head up a rock slope and into a secluded area. Brady bends over and picks up a pinch of dusty soil. “Out of that bit of soil,” he says, “you can get enough to do DNA analysis.” He holds it in his fingertips momentarily, and then tosses it. Bits of glassy silica glisten in the sunlight.
Brady is creating drugs from dirt. He’s certain that the world’s topsoils contain incredible, practically inexhaustible reservoirs of undiscovered antibiotics, the chemical weapons bacteria use to fend off other microorganisms. He’s not alone in this thinking, but the problem is that the vast majority of bacteria cannot be grown in the lab—a necessary step in cultivating antibiotics.
Brady has found a way around this roadblock, which opens the door to all those untapped bacteria that live in dirt. By cloning DNA out of a kind of bacteria-laden mud soup, and reinstalling these foreign gene sequences into microorganisms that can be grown in the lab, he’s devised a method for discovering antibiotics that could soon treat infectious diseases and fight drug-resistant superbugs. In early 2016, Brady launched a company called Lodo Therapeutics (lodo means mud in Spanish and Portuguese) to scale up production and ultimately help humanity outrun infectious diseases nipping at our heels. Some colleagues call his approach “a walk in the park.” Indeed, his lab recently dispatched two groups of student volunteers to collect bags full of dirt at 275 locations around New York City.
We’re retracing their path back toward his lab, our shoes crunching down on potential cures for nearly any ailment imaginable. “It’s pretty amazing, right?” Brady says, drawing his words out. “Right here we can find all … the … drugs … in … the world. Pretty cool, I must say.”
At exactly the same time Brady and I are walking around Central Park, a 70-year-old woman arrives at a hospital in Reno, Nevada, with an infection no doctor can treat. The woman had fallen during a trip to India, and a pocket of fluid developed near her hip. She flew back to the US, and then, two weeks later, she was dead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the organism responsible for her death could evade 26 antibiotic drugs. The culprit, pan-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, is not the only superbug overpowering humanity’s defenses; it is part of a family known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. The carpabenems are drugs of last resort, and the CDC considers organisms that evade these antibiotics to be nightmare bacteria.
One problem with antibiotic resistance is that, for most people, it remains abstract—right now its lethal impact is relatively small. Few of us have lost loved ones—yet. (The headline-grabbing methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, kills 20,000 people a year in the US, compared to the 600,000 who succumb to cancer.) So it’s difficult to envision a future that resembles the pre-antibiotic past—an era of untreatable staph, strep, tuberculosis, leprosy, pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet and puerperal fevers, dysentery, typhoid, meningitis, gas gangrene, and gonorrhea.
But that’s the future we are headed for. The routine use of antibiotics and the reckless misuse in humans and animals accelerates resistance: We’re rewinding to a world where death begins in childbirth, where premature babies die, where newborns go blind from gonorrhea. Routine injuries become life-threatening infections. You could lose a limb, or your life, from a careless slip with a paring knife or an accidental fall in India. The risks of organ transplants and medical implants would outweigh any potential benefit. Go in for routine dental surgery and end up in a body bag. Explosive viral epidemics, such as the flu, prove especially lethal when they tag team with bacterial infections like strep. This is not the coming plague. It’s already upon us, and it spells the end of medicine as we know it. And that’s why Brady’s quest to revitalize antibiotic discovery is so crucial.