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Study: Antibiotic-Resistant ‘Superbugs’ Pose Bigger Threat Than Previously Thought

Resistant bacteria are more adept at survival

A new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital has presented some troubling findings when it comes to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals across the country, according to recent articles. The researchers found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria, once thought to be less “fit” than other strains, in fact survive better and cause more deadly infections.

The authors published their findings in the July 22 issue of Science Translational Medicine. The bottom line: antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be tougher adversaries than previously thought. Not only are they harder to treat, but the antibiotic-resistant strains are more adept at survival.

In the study, the researchers examined the effect of genes on antibiotic resistance in Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria, which can cause lung infections. They found that genes that bestowed antibiotic resistance provided an in vivo fitness advantage to P. aeruginosa during infection. The investigators confirmed these findings with the pathogenic bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii and Vibrio cholerae in other animal models.

“Our results show that efforts to confront the worldwide increase in antibiotic resistance might be exacerbated by fitness advantages that enhance virulence in drug-resistant microbes,” they wrote.

The findings are notable in that, currently, the main method to treat antibiotic resistance is to avoid overprescribing antibiotics. When antibiotics are given to a person who doesn’t need them, it induces pressure on the bacteria to survive in the body, causing genetic mutations that can lead to problems.

But co-author Dr. David Skurnik told the Boston Business Journal that mutations can also occur naturally in bacteria, leading to resistance.

The study also shows that even if antibiotic therapy is stopped, resistant organisms will still win out in a war for space against other bacteria.

“The challenge of dealing with resistance is going to be harder, or the bar will be higher, because merely controlling antibiotic use, which is in itself problematic, won’t make these organisms go away,” co-author Dr. Gerald Pier said. “They are even able to be persistent when we don’t use antibiotics, and they represent a double threat from their resistance and increased ability to cause infection.”

The authors note that antibiotic-resistant bacteria have an antigen in common that researchers can target to develop vaccines and antibodies. They have begun working on such tools, developing a vaccine that is in pre-clinical trials and that could be ready for human testing as early as 2016. The researchers have also developed an antibody that has begun testing in humans. Future testing with more batches will soon be underway.

Earlier this year, the White House released a $1.2 billion plan to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This effort came on the heels of a report from the British government that warned that “superbugs” could cause 10 million deaths per year and cost $100 trillion per year by 2050 if global governments fail to act.

Among five broad-based goals in its plan to combat drug-resistant bacteria, the Obama administration aims to “increase and accelerate research and development for new therapeutics and antibiotics.” One such drug is teixobactin, a new antibiotic developed by researchers at Northeastern University that shows promise for treating Clostridium difficile and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Sources: Boston Business Journal; July 23, 2015; Science Translational Medicine; July 22, 2015; and FierceHealthcare; April 24, 2015.


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