There have been a lot of recent news articles (like this one from PBS, or this one from NBC News, and ABC News, and Forbes, and CNN, and…you get my point, it’s big news) about a woman in Nevada who died last Spring from a “superbug” – a bacterial infection that cannot easily (or at all) be cured with antibiotics. In her case, none of the 26 approved antibiotics in the US could cure her infection.
These infections survive antibiotics because the bacteria have become resistant to the antibiotics. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Bacteria have been showing resistance to antibiotics since the first antibiotic – penicillin – was introduced. There have been outbreaks since then: MRSA infections in hospitals and communities and Salmonella from ground turkey, to name only a few. The scariest thus far have definitely been the outbreaks of CRE: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. Enterobacteriaceae are a family of bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and the current “big bad” Klebsiella.
The bacteria have been able to resist antibiotics because they evolved to produce enzymes called beta-lactamases that chew up the antibiotics into an inactive form.
Inactivating the antibiotic renders it useless and the bacteria continues to do damage. The problem now is that we are running out of antibiotics that do work and we’re seeing more and more bacteria develop resistant to those few.
The return on investment for antibiotics is low, so not many pharmaceutical companies are putting money into developing new antibiotics. The widespread use of antibacterial products, antibiotic use in farm animals, and unnecessary over-prescribing of antibiotics all contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.