How ‘Superbugs’ become super

How 'Superbugs' become super

The news of the superbug that came out this week made waves because until last month it has never been found in the United States.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this new bug is resistant to “every antibiotic, including the last one we have, colistin, an old antibiotic. It was the only one left for what I’ve called ‘nightmare bacteria.’ ”

Colistin was discovered in the 1950s but fell out of favor because it’s fairly toxic to the human body.

To be specific it damages the human liver and if overprescribed can be deadly in and of itself.

Worked against resistant strains

But until recently it was working against bacteria that had evolved a strong resistance to other kinds of antibiotics.

Until April that is, when a Pennsylvania woman tested positive for a form of E. coli called CRE (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae) that comes equipped with a gene called mcr-1 that protects it from colilstin.

How did this happen?

Think of it in terms of the quote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Well that’s what’s happening here.

Antibiotics are prescribed to fight and kill invading bacteria in a few different ways.

They can destroy a bacteria’s cell wall, making it basically self-destruct.

Role in bacteria

Antibiotics can stop the bacteria from repairing itself or they can keep it from reproducing so new bacteria can’t grow and spread an infection.

But because antibiotics are never completely effective, after a course of antibiotics there might be a few resistant bacteria still around.

In some cases, its just a case of evolution, and a lucky mutation allows a bacteria to survive antibiotics.

These mutation are made more possible because, in some cases, doctor’s aren’t prescribing the best antibiotics to fight a particular bacteria, Herman Goossens, a professor of medical microbiology at the University of Antwerp Belgium, told VOA.

“We don’t have good diagnostic tests to detect the bacteria. So, doctors just give antibiotics, a cocktail if they are not sure what it is, and that’s all wrong. This has to change. This practice has to change,” Goossens said.

That practice contributes to the possibility some bacteria will ultimately survive a regimen of antibiotics, and as they grow and spread, any new bacteria carry that resistance, making that particular antibiotic ineffective.

Life finds a way

Adding to a rise in resistant bacteria is the overprescription of antibiotics.

Frieden and others have been fighting against overprescription for years.

The statistics are disturbing. In the U.S. alone, antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken 2 million people every year, leading to at least 23,000 deaths.

The obvious solution to the problem is to find new antibiotics, and the search is constant.

Just last week, the British government released a study suggesting that drug companies be rewarded financially to the tune of billions of dollars for developing new antibiotics.

Prime Minister David Cameron is pitching the plan at the G-7 Summit in Japan this week.

Reworking old antibiotics

And there is also some promising new research aimed at making old antibiotics new again.

In cutting-edge science published recently in the journal Nature, researchers from a number of U.S. universities proposed using viruses to attack invading bacteria.

These viruses are called bacteriophages, and they’re special because the report said they can “specifically target and kill bacteria.”

They  bind to the surface of the bacteria, and can kill it, but in this case the researchers report they also negate the bacteria’s resistance, in effect making old drugs work again.

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