In January, researchers announced the discovery of a new type of antibiotic that could help hold off the imminent threat of antibiotic resistance. It was made from something that hadn’t gotten much testing before: dirt.
If it’s approved, the new drug could help save lives from routine infections when (not if) bacteria learn to outsmart older antibiotics. And there could be countless other potential antibiotics also lurking in dirt, or plants, or fungi around the world.
A new toolkit called Post/Biotics is designed to let citizen scientists–including elementary school students–help in the process of discovering those new drugs.
“The problem of antimicrobial resistance has been on the rise and presents a danger to the future of global healthcare,” says Post/Biotics designer Vidhi Mehta, a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art. Already, around 50,000 people in the U.S. and Europe die each year because of antibiotic resistance; by 2050, without new antibiotics, some experts estimate that over 10 million people might die each year.
“Coming from a design background, we often call problems like antimicrobial resistance ‘wicked problems’–problems of systemic magnitude with multiple stakeholders that are complex, but have no silver bullet solution,” Mehta says. “These problems need lots of interventions, each of which moves us closer to resolving the roots of the problem.”
As a grad student, Mehta talked with a research fellow from NASA about antibiotic resistance. “We discussed how the next potential antibiotic could be anywhere, making the task of finding these antimicrobials work and resource intensive for drug companies,” she says. One potential solution: crowdsourcing new drugs.
The Post/Biotics toolkit includes a small pop-up lab that anyone can use to test samples and then send results, along with a photo and GPS location, to an online database. “Citizen scientists test their samples–say a crushed bark of a tree found in their backyard–against non-pathogenic bacteria strains provided with the toolkit,” she says.
If the sample has antimicrobial properties, it will change color. When the database notices something that might be interesting, it pings researchers at various universities, and they can ask for samples. Anything that might be useful ends up in an open-source library of potential antimicrobials.
As she first developed the prototype toolkit, Mehta found that schools were most interested in using it–the process is simple enough for children, designed like a game, and a way that students can learn through experimenting. But she also says anyone can participate.
“The platform is more a vision of open-source drug discovery, and represents what can happen when a design enables the tools of scientific innovation to reach out to the common people, supporting their learning, and adding to scientific knowledge through the power of the crowd,” she says. “Realistically, anyone who is enthusiastic about science, can use this kit to contribute to the wealth of data.”
Post/Biotics is launching a crowdfunding campaign in November.