Christian Long

Kary Mullis: Next-Gen Cure for Killer Infections

In TED Talks on May 4, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Extra credit reflection by HERSH T.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Kary Mullis:  Next-Gen Cure for Killer Infections

What happens when all bacteria are immune to antibodies?

With the discovery and application of penicillin, we discovered that bacteria could be killed with antibiotics. And then, after we discovered this, penicillin was used so much and in such high quantity that the bacteria actually grew immune to it. The bacteria adapted and changed enough so that penicillin no longer affected them in the same way. The magnitude of this is so huge that we as humans have simply been putting it off and thinking that we would find another antibody that we could use. But what happens when that runs out? And then when the bacteria adapt to the next one. A vicious cycle has been born and now, we must find a way to escape it.

Mr. Mullis has done just that. In what we should expect from a Nobel-prize winning chemist, Mr. Mullis has come up with an ingenious plan.

When people attempted to transplant a pig’s heart or any other animal’s heart into a human, they hit a rather large speed bump. The human body physically rejected the heart. Until a short while ago, we were unaware of why this occurred and only lately have we understood why this problem occurs between humans. However, when involving animals we must look at it through a different lens. The alpha-gal epitope is the molecule that makes your body freak out and attack it. It is the reason that pig hearts can’t be transferred into humans. Now, because it is a molecule, it can be connected to bacteria and many other cells in the body. Think about that for a second.

What if we attached this molecule to bacteria?

What if we attached this molecule, which evokes an almost automatic immune response in the body, to the bacteria which is now immune to our antibodies? It would be a miracle solution. The molecule would travel throughout our bodies harmlessly because it had been mutated to only attach to specific bacteria. And then, when that bacterium was introduced into our body system, the molecule would attach to the bacteria and cause the immune system to respond instantaneously and attack the bacteria. The immune system would not need to spend several days trying to figure out the bacteria and trying to formulate a way to kill it. It would automatically attack the alpha-gal epitope that is upon the bacteria and the immune system would kill it without having to identify it.

However, this could have some repercussions. When you get a disease that does not mutate often, (i.e. chicken pox) and you recover than it is safe to say that you are almost immune to it. This is because the body’s immune system was forced to recognize the bacteria and form antibodies specifically for the disease, so if it ever came back the body could react in automatic ways. However, if the body reacts based simply on the molecule, than the body would not be able to identify the disease on its own and you would have to constantly pump the molecule into the body and in a sense you would become dependent upon it.

Of course, as any good scientist, Mr. Mullis has to provide proof and conduct an experiment. A lab took several groups of mice and gave them anthrax. They then put the modified alpha-gal epitope into the first group of mice and antibodies into the next several groups. Lo and behold, the group with the molecule added had a 100% survival rate. The anthrax had been completely eradicated from their bodies.

Here, Mr. Mullis epitomizes TED perfectly; he explains an incredible and amazing idea which could actually have a profound impact on us today and more importantly tomorrow.


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