The Big Idea: Fighting superbugs

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Antibiotics -- one of the most profound medical breakthroughs of the 20th Century -- don't work as well as they once did.   Jean Patel, the director of the CDC's Office of Antibiotic Resistance, said antibiotic resistance has occurred ever since the discovery of antibiotics and that bacteria have become more resistant over time.

Video provided by Harvard Medical School perfectly illustrates the problem. Bacteria on both sides of a massive petri dish in effect quickly mutate and spread, overcoming one then 10 then 100 then eventually 1,000 times the antibiotic once able to kill it.

The staph infection MRSA, tuberculosis, and even sexually transmitted diseases are becoming resistant to traditional treatment. 

"We're at a point now where it's really affecting human health and we're not seeing new drugs coming to market to help solve the problem so it's time to take action," Patel said.

Dr. Laura Fisher, an internist and infectious disease specialist in New York City, said: "It definitely is worsening."

Part of the blame belongs with us. Many patients either fail to finish their entire course of treatment, opening up the door to drug resistance or worse go to their doctor demanding antibiotics for something that isn't even a bacterial infection in the first place. 

"I think in New York we see it more than elsewhere in the country that people demand a cure," Fisher said. "And sometimes it's the wrong cure they're asking for."

Also contributing to the problem: finding newer, more effective drugs remains a challenge; one that there hasn't been sufficient financial incentive for major pharmaceutical companies to aggressively pursue.

"And when a new antibiotic comes to market the first thing we want to do is to preserve it, to not use it until it absolutely has to be used to save lives because of resistant infections," CDC's Patel said. "And if we save antibiotics it doesn't allow the company that developed the drug to recoup their investment. So it's hard to encourage pharmaceutical companies to make a drug when it's not going to be widely used, especially at first."

But that is hopefully about to change. Kevin Outterson is a Boston University law professor and heading up CARB-X, a brand new state-of-the-art biopharmaceutical accelerator located at B.U. The goal is to make it easier to get more new antibiotic drugs into the pipeline.

"If we want to be safe from bacterial threats we need to invest so the companies will have the products available at the moment that we need them," Outterson said. "We hope to have 20 products that are ready for human clinical trials by the end of the five years."

And the good news is that while the scientists do their thing we can still play an active role in keeping ourselves safe, too.  

"We really see the most resistant infections happening in hospitals. And hospitals are really focusing on preventing transmission of infections in those settings," Patel said. "Outside of hospitals, basic hygiene practices can go a long way to preventing infections."

So while the war on superbugs is clearly a tough fight, at least the battle is underway.


CDC: Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance

UN agency launches action plan to tackle threat of 'superbugs'