Ada Yonath

Multi-drug resistance of bacteria has reached a stage that even wounds can turn fatal for humans, Nobel laureate Ada Yonath warned.

The Israeli crystallographer, who shared the chemistry Nobel with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz in 2009 for her work on ribosome, was delivering the 79th Foundation Day lecture on “Next Generation Environmental Friendly Antibiotics” at Bose Institute on Thursday.

“Resistance to antibiotics is a real big problem to modern medicine. Multi-drug resistance has developed not because we use antibiotics, but because bacteria has evolved and uses mechanisms against other bacteria in their fight for resources,” Yonath said.

The 78-year-old cited a study, by a group of scientists led by her, which spotted an antibiotics-fighting gene in an Amazonian tribe that has never been exposed to western medicines or food. “This shows that resistance is a basic process for the survival of the micro-organisms regardless of their exposure to western medicines and suggest that microbes had long evolved the capacity to fight toxins including antibiotics,” she said.

Calling the increasing incidence of multi-drug resistance of bacteria “a colossal health hazard”, Yonath cited the World Health Organisation report which said the humankind was entering a post-antibiotic era.

“We are entering a post-antibiotic era of multi-drug resistance where people will die not just of diseases like tuberculosis but also of pneumonia or even wounds,” she said.

The scientist referred to a World Bank report, which estimates that up to 38 per cent of the global economy will be lost by 2050 because of resistance to antibiotics.

Yet, she said, few new antibiotics are being developed as pharma companies are reluctant to invest in research in the field. “Since pharma companies aren’t doing anything, we have decided to do it our own way,” she said.

Findings of the structural studies on ribosome may lead to a new group of antibiotics that can be optimised in terms of their chemical properties, toxicity, cellular penetration and species-specificity.

Yonath’s tryst with India began 50 years ago when she met scientist G.N. Ramachandran at Weizmann Institute of Science. “After meeting him I underwent a metamorphosis to love you people and your country,” she said. So when invited to deliver the 79th AJC Bose Memorial Lecture, Yonath did not think twice to talk at this 100-year-old institution.