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J R Soc Interface. 2012 Oct 7;9(75):2488-502. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2012.0279. Epub 2012 May 23.

The optimal deployment of synergistic antibiotics: a control-theoretic approach.

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Department of Biosciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4SB, UK.


Medical and pharmacological communities have long searched for antimicrobial drugs that increase their effect when used in combination, an interaction known as synergism. These drug combinations, however, impose selective pressures in favour of multi-drug resistance and as a result, the benefit of synergy may be lost after only a few bacterial generations. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence that antibiotic treatment can disrupt colonization resistance by shifting the balance between enteropathogenic and commensal bacteria in favour of the pathogens, with the potential to increase the risk of infections. So, we ask, what is the best way of using synergistic drugs? We pose an evolutionary model of commensal and pathogenic bacteria competing in a continuous culture device for a single limiting carbon source under the effect of two bacteriostatic and synergistic antibiotics. This model allows us to evaluate the efficacy of different drug deployment strategies and, using ideas from optimal control theory, to understand whether there are circumstances in which other types of therapy might be favoured over those based on fixed-dose multi-drug combinations. Our main result can be stated thus: the optimal deployment of synergistic antibiotics to remove a pathogen in the presence of commensal bacteria in our model system occurs not in combination, but by deploying them sequentially.

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