Analysis: Humans Losing War Against Antibiotic-Resistant 'Superbugs'

A prominent researcher says humans have "fallen way behind" in the war against superbugs.

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Little new work on antibiotics has been undertaken since the 1980s, experts say.

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Humans are quickly losing the fight against bacteria as so-called "superbugs" continue to develop resistance to some of the last effective antibiotics, leading some scientists to worry about the possibility of untreatable bacterial infections.

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"The idea of a pan-resistant bacterial infection--one we can't treat--that's not something we've had to worry about since the 1930s," says Brad Spellberg, who studies infectious diseases at UCLA. Wednesday, Spellberg published an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine that warns of the "converging crises of increasing resistance and collapse of antibiotic research and development."

In 2009, Spellberg published Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them, which he hoped would change attitudes about the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals and underscore the need to invest more heavily in antibiotic development.

"It's been going on four years, and little progress has been made," he says. "We have not seen many changes."

Spellberg says medical professionals are expecting superbug outbreaks to occur more frequently. In 2012, Klebsiella pneumoniae spread through the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center, killing six people. At the time, Tara Palmore, of NIH, said the outbreak was "the proverbial superbug that we've all worried about for a long time." Other bacteria, such as gonorrhea, are showing increasing resistance to some of the last remaining effective antibiotics.

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"Gonorrhea is late to the party--the concern over that has just started in the last year or so," Spellberg says. "I think we'll see pan-resistance in the next few years, but there are other bugs that have been resistant for much longer."

In his editorial, Spellberg suggests that the government needs to take a multifaceted approach to solving the problem: There needs to be more incentives for drug manufacturers focused on developing new antibiotics, a focus on preventing infection in the first place, and a concerted effort to use existing antibiotics only when necessary.

"I really do not think you can address antibiotic resistance without a multifaceted approach," he says. "These organisms are so unbelievably adaptable--anything we throw at them, they develop a resistance to."

But little new work on antibiotics has been undertaken since the 1980s. As those antibiotics become less effective, the reality of untreatable illnesses will become even more pressing, he says.

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"In the 40s and 50s, we had this golden era of discoveries, we were way ahead of the bacteria. Then that petered out and had this reinvestment during the 70s and 80s with a lot of new drugs coming along," he says. "Since that time, we've fallen way behind."

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