Shedding light on the history and global history of antibiotics | MIT news


When Rijul Kochhar arrived at MIT to begin his PhD, he was already sure of what he wanted to study. Hailing from Delhi, where he earned Masters and Bachelors degrees and taught at the Delhi School of Economics, he was eager to begin a PhD in MIT’s multidisciplinary program in History / Anthropology / Science, Technology and Society (HASTS).

Kochhar is well on his way to completing his PhD and has conducted ethnographic and historical research on the global history of antibiotic resistance for the past seven years. He is particularly interested in tracking how antibiotics have gradually lost their effectiveness over time and around the world, and what consequences this phenomenon has for the world today. The “finite but miraculous” life of antibiotics, as Kochhar puts it, has had a good run in the history of science for three quarters of a century. But what happens when your protection starts to fray?

Kochhar’s journey is also one of exploring the nature of scientific thought as it has changed over many decades and centuries. The spirit that guides such explorations and discoveries is central to its own philosophy in class: striving for greater understanding with curiosity and openness to new ideas.

Changing medical and microbial realities

Antibiotics play a fundamental role as the infrastructures of modern human society. From food production to health care to biosecurity, antibiotics are an integral part of our lives. “Mass meat production, for example, is heavily dependent on the use of antibiotics in poultry and cattle,” explains Kochhar. “In order to make animal proteins available to the human population in the amounts we expected, the use of antibiotics on a large scale was necessary. Now we are dealing with the legacy of this chemical regime. “

Kochhar has been on site for over a decade, conducting field research on the subject. “Antibiotics are becoming less and less effective – less than a century after their development and mass use in human society. My job as an anthropologist is to trace the demise of antibiotics in cultural life and to examine what is being done by various actors involved in the story at this point – be they doctors, scientists, biosafety agencies, or patients. What does it mean to live in this time? “

Part of the answer to this question, for Kochhar, is a structural change in medicine and science: the revival of neglected – but successful – techniques of the past to 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 providing distinctive yet connected evidence of how the antibiotic crisis is articulated and managed.

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

This cycle of bacterial kill and rebirth is happening all around us on a grand scale. “Every day, almost 40 percent of the earth’s oceanic bacterial cells are killed by bacteriophages,” notes Kochhar, “and then bacterial life repopulates the earth’s biosphere – every day!”

Why aren’t phages used more often in biomedical treatments today? The answer is tangled up in the political history of mankind. According to Kochhar, phages had “divided lives” in Western and Soviet environments. In the West they are used more as model organisms for basic biological research (e.g. they play a decisive role in deciphering the genetic code). In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, they were accepted as therapeutic agents for combating bacterial infections.

Antibiotics, a product of World War II, became predominant in the West, where they were made on a large scale and much easier to use than phage. Antibiotics, however, lacked the precision of phages. Antibiotics make bacterial life a top priority, a broad and bulky weapon that has nonetheless been necessary and popular for decades. Of course times have changed and modern science now tells us that not all bacteria are harmful. Research today also tells us that indiscriminately killing bacteria can create problems of its own. Research into phages as precision antibiotics is met with widespread interest.

No pre-made facts

The nature of scientific research – in addition to science itself – has opened up new perspectives for Kochhar as a historically oriented anthropologist. “For a long time we imagined that we would live in a unique time in which the scientific community is networked around the world,” he reflects. “But there is evidence that this very kind of collaboration took place across continents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – without the Internet. You can trace this type of scientific influence, culture, and collaboration all the way back to the Enlightenment, if not earlier, as well as conversations between scientific audiences and issues during the heyday of planetary colonial enterprise. “

“It is precisely this type of interaction – forged in colonial encounters and within a matrix of scientific rationality and religious conviction – that I researched in India,” says Kochhar. “In order to understand the contexts in which the discovery of bacteriophages takes place, it is necessary to understand the complex conditions under which knowledge is generated and passed on transnationally. How does this story also affect the cultural uptake of antibiotics and phages today? “

One revealing truth that Kochhar revisits time and again in his research is that there are socio-cultural processes that make prepackaged, fundamental facts appear stable. “I often find that facts are actually constructed through the work of many people on many continents. We respect scientific work and facts, but not only because such research is a means to an end. It’s also because it reveals human collaborations across time and space, “he says.

“When I teach, I remind my students who are budding scientists at MIT exactly about this point; Regardless of your discipline, it is important to think about the factual architecture of this domain of knowledge. What is your foundation? Where do the nuggets of reliable, factual, trustworthy knowledge come from? Who are the players and who are the players who are not granted status in the process? “

The future of phages

Kochhar is concerned not only with the history of bacteriophages, but also with their future in the face of declining antibiotic effectiveness. Phages as therapeutic agents are now reappearing in the West, but only within the framework of a regulatory policy of “compassionate use”. But here, too, a worldly dynamic intervenes in the process. In the United States, for example, insurance companies typically do not adopt such life-saving treatments – a discrepancy that reflects both major inequalities in the health system and emerging research and funding mechanisms that are fundamentally changing future biomedical developments.

At MIT, Kochhar is positioned at an epicenter for advances in phage technology. Many places within MIT are working on phage as precision antimicrobials, including research that could potentially lead to a therapeutic option for biotech startups.

In addition, bacteriophages are centrally linked to the history of CRISPR. Bacteria employ an adaptive immune system every time bacteriophages attempt to infect them. “If this defense mechanism can be used in the laboratory, scientists – including those at MIT and the Broad Institutes, and in California and elsewhere – could find a mechanism to manipulate the human genome. CRISPR and other forms of such emerging biotechnology are based on this very relationship that bacteria and viruses share and that emerges from a history of scientific work that is much older and more complex than it initially appears. “

The sensitivity of a historian, the courage of an anthropologist

When Covid-19 began to spread around the world in early 2020, Kochhar was faced with the test of many research hypotheses that he had been working on for years: Pathogens do not recognize or obey national borders, and yet people are still responding to the health crisis that became a nation made into a nation. Like other planetary crises, including climate change and antibiotic resistance, Covid-19 has made it clear that thinking in terms of national boundaries – rather than planetary ecologies – is often unable to adequately address urgent global challenges.

Over the course of his academic career, Kochhar has learned to find his way around the role of student and teacher. “When I first came to MIT as a PhD student, I was at this limit. I wasn’t a student and I wasn’t a faculty member. As a graduate student, I had to get used to the idea of ​​being someone in training, some kind of academic apprentice. Now, as I prepare to graduate from MIT’s HASTS program, I appreciate living in this frontier area, which has given me a dizzying array of research opportunities and the luxury of constant curiosity. ”Such curiosity, says Kochhar, is ultimately crucial to give spirit and purpose to the pursuit of academic work in a threatened world.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and design management: Emily Hiestand
Senior Communications Associate: Alison Lanier

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