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SCIENCE IN MIND

Infection-quashing antibiotics may damage cells

Study shows link to mitochondrial malfunction

James J. Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University, led the study on the potential for antibiotics to damage the body’s cells while killing infectious agents. “Our paper points to the need to investigate further,” he said of the published work.

Jodi Hilton for The Boston Globe/File

James J. Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University, led the study on the potential for antibiotics to damage the body’s cells while killing infectious agents. “Our paper points to the need to investigate further,” he said of the published work.

For years, public health officials have been sounding an alarm about the overuse of antibiotics, noting that the powerful drugs that can quash an infection with few side effects can also spur the rise of drug-resistant “superbugs.” It’s an argument that often seems to miss its mark, considering that about a fifth of doctor’s office visits in the United States result in a prescription for an antibiotic and every child receives, on average, one antibiotic prescription per year.

Now, a new study offers a different and more personal reason to think cautiously about the use of antibiotics: they may harm our cells, too. Although no one with a good reason to take the drugs should be alarmed, researchers have found that certain antibiotics administered at the doses people receive clinically can cause mitochondria, the power plants within cells, to malfunction. Their tests so far are on human cells in a laboratory dish and in mice, but they have accumulated evidence that common antibiotics cause mitochondria to spew out factors that damage DNA, proteins, and other crucial components of the cell.

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“That’s not killing the cell or causing a lot of damage, but it’s causing some damage,” said James J. Collins, a Boston University bioengineer who led the work published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. “Our paper points to the need to investigate it further; I guess the public health comment would be given there is a potential for harm, one needs to be sure to ask for and only take [these drugs] when needed.”

It was already known that antibiotics can have broad effects, including altering the population of beneficial bacteria that dwell in our guts. Prolonged antibiotic use and particular drugs can carry risks, including hearing loss, tendinitis, or kidney problems.

But the new study shows that several types of antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, and kanamycin, spur the release of damaging factors called reactive oxygen species in mammalian cells.

The researchers were also able to show a possible solution: a particular antioxidant could be administered simultaneously to ameliorate the negative effect of the antibiotics on cells.

The work is early research and needs to be replicated in further experiments in laboratory animals and eventually tested in clinical trials in people to understand the significance of the damage caused by the drugs.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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