To treat and prevent infections, antibiotics emerged in the twentieth century as effective medicines against harmful bacteria. But as the saying goes, you can, sometimes, have too much of a good thing.

Over the years, certain strains of bacteria have evolved and adapted themselves, becoming resistant to the use of antibiotics. This is considered to be one of the major threats to global health today. In the United States alone, the resistance is estimated to cause over 23,000 deaths every year along with 2 million illnesses.

According to the World Health Organization, these illnesses include the likes of pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis, all of which are becoming more difficult to treat.

But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have identified a potential solution to this issue. In a new study, they revealed how they eradicated two strains of drug-resistant bacteria which are known to infect wounds.

The paper titled "Biofilm‐Inspired Encapsulation of Probiotics for the Treatment of Complex Infections" was published in the journal Advanced Materials on Oct. 17.

In their treatment, the team used not only antibiotics but also probiotics i.e. good bacteria. Previously, studies have tried to test probiotics alone, a treatment which was not efficient enough in killing off the pathogens. 

But in this case, chemical engineers from MIT combined a commercially-available probiotic called Bio-K+ and a popular antibiotic called tobramycin. The probiotic was protected in a shell of alginate, thus preventing the antibiotic from killing it.

"We looked into the molecular components of biofilms and we found that for Pseudomonas infection, alginate is very important for its resistance against antibiotics," said lead author Zhihao Li, a former MIT visiting scientist. "However, so far no one has used this ability to protect good bacteria from antibiotics."

In the laboratory, the research team tested the combination on a dish containing Pseudomonas and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — two bacteria species which often attack together.

They observed a "drastic effect" where all of the pathogenic bacteria were completely wiped out. In other words, the antibiotic/probiotic combination presents a potential way to treat wounds that may be infected by different bacteria.

It may be possible that new kinds of bandages or wound dressings will be developed in the future, embedded with antibiotics and encapsulated probiotics. There is still a long way to go as the team will have to further test this method on animals and human beings in clinical trials.

"The good thing about alginate is it’s FDA-approved, and the probiotic we use is approved as well," Li added. "I think probiotics can be something that may revolutionize wound treatment in the future. With our work, we have expanded the application possibilities of probiotics."