Illuminating the history and global story of antibiotics MIT News

When Rijul Kochhar arrived at MIT to begin his PhD studies, he was already certain of what he wanted to study. Coming from Delhi, where he earned his master’s and bachelor’s degrees and taught at the Delhi School of Economics, he went on to begin his doctoral studies in MIT’s multidisciplinary program in History/Anthropology/Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) were curious.

Now on track to complete her PhD, Kochhar has been conducting ethnographic and historical research on the global story of antibiotic resistance over the past seven years. He is particularly interested in tracking how antibiotics, gradually and globally, have lost their efficacy over time, and what the consequences of this phenomenon represent for the contemporary world. As Kochhar put it, the “limited but miraculous” life of antibiotics has been around for a good three-quarters of a century in the history of science. But what happens when their security starts to falter?

Kochhar’s journey is one of examining the nature of scientific thought as it turns over many decades and centuries. The spirit that guides such exploration and discovery is central to its own philosophy in the classroom: the pursuit of greater understanding with curiosity and openness in the face of new ideas.

Changing medical and microbial realities

Antibiotics play a fundamental role as the basic framework of modern human society. From food production to health care to biosafety, antibiotics are an integral part of the way we live. “Large-scale meat production, for example, is heavily dependent on the use of antibiotics in avian livestock and cattle,” explains Kochhar. “Providing animal proteins to human populations at the scale we expect required the use of antibiotics on a large scale. We are now dealing with the legacy of that chemical regime.”

Kochhar has been doing fieldwork on the subject for more than a decade. “Antibiotics are rapidly losing efficacy – less than a century after their development and large-scale deployment in human society. My job as an anthropologist is to track the destruction of antibiotics in cultural life, and this Examine what is being done by the various players involved in the story at the moment – whether they are doctors, scientists, biosafety regulators or patients. What is the point of living in this time?”

For Kochhar, the answer to that question is structural change in medicine and science: reviving neglected — but successful — techniques of the past to help control bacterial life in the present.

His work spans three continents, with research in India, the United States, and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, each of which offers specific-yet-connected evidence of how the antibiotic crisis has been articulated and tackled. are.

In Georgia in particular, he is interested in an alternative to antibiotics called phage therapy, which uses bacteriophages — ecologically abundant viruses that infect bacteria — to create a desirable bacterial ecosystem. That is to say, phages are found alongside bacteria, which control the bacterial population through a predatory but balanced relationship.

This cycle of destruction and regeneration of bacteria goes on continuously around us on a large scale. “Every day about 40 percent of Earth’s marine bacterial cells are killed by bacteriophages,” says Kochhar, “and then bacterial life repopulates Earth’s biosphere—every day!”

Why are phages no longer more widely used in biomedical treatments? The answer is entangled in human political history. According to Kochhar, the phases have had a “split life” in Western versus Soviet settings. In the West, there is a tendency to use them as model organisms for basic biological research (for example, playing a key role in the decoding of the genetic code). On the other hand, in the Soviet Union, they were accepted as therapeutic agents to combat bacterial infections.

Antibiotics, a product of World War II, became dominant in the West, where they could be mass-produced and deployed more easily than in phases. However, antibiotics lacked the accuracy of the steps. Antibiotics Clear Bacterial Life Right Big, a widespread and unsightly weapon that has nevertheless remained necessary and popular for decades. Of course, times have changed, and modern science now tells us that not all bacteria are harmful. Today’s scholarship also tells us that killing bacteria indiscriminately can create problems of its own. This is where research on phages as precise antimicrobials is generating widespread interest.

no pre-packaged facts

The nature of scientific research – other than the science itself – has opened new avenues for Kochhar as a historically minded anthropologist. “We have long imagined that we live in a unique time when the scientific community is connected around the world,” he reflects. “But there’s evidence that exactly the same kind of collaborative work across continents happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—without the Internet. You can track that kind of scientific influence, culture, and collaboration all the way to the Enlightenment.” could, if not earlier, as well as for interaction between scientific audiences and disciplines during the rise of planetary-scale colonial enterprises.”

“It is precisely this kind of interaction – forged in colonial encounters and within a matrix of scientific rationality and religious belief – that I am exploring in India,” Kochhar says. “To understand the contexts in which bacteriophages are discovered is to chart the complex conditions in which knowledge emerges, and is disseminated internationally. How that history influences antibiotics and the cultural uptake of phages today ?”

The truth that Kochhar has repeatedly highlighted in his research is that there are socio-cultural processes through which pre-formed, fundamental facts are revealed in a stable form. “I often find that facts are actually produced, through the labor of many people, on many continents. We have respect for scientific work and fact, but it is not only because such research is of an end. It is also a means because it reflects human cooperation in time and space,” he says.

“When teaching, I remind my students, who are budding scientists at MIT, of exactly that point; whatever their discipline, it’s important to think about the factual structure of that knowledge area. What is its foundation? Where do credible, factual, credible nuggets of knowledge come from? Who are the players, and who are the players who are not rated in the process?”

future of stages

Kochhar is concerned not only with the history of bacteriophages but also with their future, as antibiotic efficacy is declining. Phages are now re-emerging in the West as therapeutic agents, but only under a “compassionate use” regulatory policy. Yet, here too, earthly dynamics influence the process. For example, in the United States, insurance companies generally do not cover such life-saving treatments – a disruption that reflects wide disparities in the health care system, as well as emerging mechanisms of research and funding that are fundamental radically changing how biomedical advances will be in the future. brought to the public.

At MIT, the Kochhar Phase is located at an epicenter for advances in technology. Precision antimicrobials are in phases at several locations within MIT, including research that could potentially lead to a therapeutic option for the biotech startup.

Additionally, bacteriophages are centrally linked to the CRISPR story. The bacteria deploy an adaptive immune system each time bacteriophages attempt to infect them. “If that mechanism of defense can be harnessed in the laboratory, scientists — at MIT and the Broad Institute as well as in California and elsewhere — have been able to find a mechanism to edit the human genome. CRISPR and the like. Other forms of emerging biotechnology are founded on precisely the relationship that bacteria and viruses share and derives from a history of scientific work that is much older and much more complex than initially meets the eye.

The sensibility of a historian, the gossip of an anthropologist

When COVID-19 began to spread around the world in early 2020, Kochhar was faced with testing a number of research hypotheses he had been working on for years: pathogens do not accept or adhere to national boundaries. and yet the human responses to the health crisis still remained nation-by-nation. Like other planetary crises, including climate change and antibiotic resistance, COVID-19 highlights how national boundaries – in the context of planetary ecology – often fall short of adequately addressing urgent global challenges. Is.

During her educational journey, Kochhar learned to navigate the roles of student and teacher. “When I first arrived at MIT as a graduate student, I found myself in this marginalized place. I was not an undergraduate, nor was I a faculty member. As a graduate student, I had to be comfortable with the idea. I thought I was someone who was in training, an academic trainee of sorts. Now as I prepare to graduate from MIT’s HASTS program, I’m starting to value life in this marginalized space, which has given me research provided the luxury of a wide range of opportunities and constant curiosity.” Such curiosity, Kochhar says, is ultimately important for giving spirit and purpose to the pursuit of academic work in a crisis-ridden world.

Story produced by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Heistand
Senior Communications Associate: Alison Lanier

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