Could UV Help Us Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs?

Evolution is a readily accepted part of the world at large, tried and true, unpredictable but entirely reliable. Often, evolution happens right in front of our eyes, placing us in direct conversation with the adapting world around us. Changes in our social world lead to changes in everyday technology, designed specifically to respond to those same things.

 The evolution of the superbug

Recently, scientists worldwide have warned about a peculiar kind of evolution: a growing scourge of superbugs. While it sounds positively alien, they are not the result of science fiction. This breed of superbugs are largely immune to traditional antibiotics, making them a quietly destructive force in our ecosystem. According to the Harvard School of Medicine, superbugs are responsible for as many as 2 million illnesses a year, and the Center for Disease Control counts as many as 23,000 deaths may occur in the next year alone. Across the globe, 700,000 die each year from drug-resistant microbes; by 2050, that number could hit as many as 10 million.
Antimicrobial resistance is, according to the World Health Organization, one of the biggest threats to world security and global health; it is also almost entirely manmade. The reaction thus far has been far from swift. Pharmaceutical companies are not yet prioritizing the development of new antibiotics that could defeat these superbugs, choosing instead to emphasize the mass production of drugs that bring in money.

Searching for a superbug solution

Yet the answer, fascinatingly enough, hasn’t come in the form of stronger antibiotics or the rush-manufacturing of new medicine. Instead, scientists and researchers everywhere have begun developing new techniques, focusing most ardently on wound care, a very common entry point for bacterial infection. Scientists from the Center of Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center have now managed to use what can best be called a super-ultraviolet light to destroy drug-resistant bacteria.  
This wouldn’t be the first time that UV rays have been a source of experimentation for the team. In 2013, scientists from the Columbia University Medical Center attempted to use a different form of UV ray, but found that the wavelength—for all its ability to kill bacteria—was too harmful for adjoining skin, especially in highly intense, concentrated doses. But the discovery of far-UVC—an extremely narrow version of the light that sits at about just 207 nanometers—has completely changed all that. Far-UVC is able to kill the bacteria that lives on the outermost exterior of the skin, but is still too weak to go through the skin and hit organs or vital segments of the body.

An antibacterial future

Initially the experiments were done on hairless rats, leading to clinical trials with larger animals, which eventually included humans. In the time since first testing the UV rays, scientists have discovered that they were able to expand the range of bacteria and viruses that light is able to tackle; it now includes diseases as debilitating as influenza and tuberculosis.
This is a brave step forward in combating as new a threat as superbugs. But the technology’s use may not need to be so specified. The new UV technique has the potential to treat surgical site infections (or SSIs) which can affect the area of the body where surgery recently took place. Infections like these are considered highly dangerous, with the Society of Critical Care Medicine quantifying them as doubling the overall patient mortality rate. Additionally, SSIs are one of a small group of infections that cause a large dent in a hospital’s finances, accounting for upwards of $10 billion per year in industry cost.
If the development of a UV alternative to medicine was born out of a pharmaceutical industry more focused on profits than patients, then it’s no wonder that the cure-all would be a money saver as well. While superbugs have yet to be fully eradicated, the fact that they have served as the inspiration for a new technological development proves that evolution can often be something of a call-and-response.