The threat posed by superbugs has been described as the “antibiotic apocalypse” – but scientists fighting drug-resistant bacteria claim to have made a breakthrough that could save lives.
Researchers have discovered how infections such as MRSA, which can spread in hospitals and lead to meningitis and pneumonia, become resistant to even the strongest antibiotics.
Resistance mechanisms are triggered in bacteria when a certain protein attaches itself to an antibiotic used to treat deadly superbugs, found scientists from the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Nottingham.
The team hopes to use this knowledge to “permanently outwit” similar microbes as they continue to mutate and become more difficult to treat.
The study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, examined microbes’ reaction to the drug vancomycin, called an “antibiotic of last resort” due to its power to treat serious infections when other drugs have failed.
“We’ve identified that the important antibiotic known as vancomycin binds directly to a specific protein in the membrane of some key bacteria,” said Mary Phillips-Jones, who led the study.
“We believe this may then trigger the resistance mechanism, most likely in combination with other additional factors.
“Understanding how these ‘resistance triggering’ mechanisms work in bacteria means that we can find new ways of destroying them, taking us one step closer towards combating these harmful superbugs.”
Over time, excessive use of antibiotics could lead to minor infections causing serious health complications, making surgery and treatment for diseases such as cancer much riskier.
“Many bacteria are very clever in quickly adapting to defend against the medicines used to kill them. Identifying the key interaction point is a major step in helping us to permanently outwit them,” said Stephen Harding, the study’s co-director.
England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has warned that 50,000 people die each year in Europe and the US from infections that have developed resistance against antibiotics.
“It is clear that we might not ever see global warming, the apocalyptic scenario is that when I need a new hip in 20 years I'll die from a routine infection because we've run out of antibiotics,” she told MPs.
Jodi Lindsay, professor of microbial pathogenes at St George’s, University of London, said the research was “important” because vancomycin was so vital for the NHS and doctors worldwide.
“[Vancomycin] is a cost-effective antibiotic for preventing and treating infection caused by MRSA. We have been lucky that MRSA have not become resistant to vancomycin yet,” she said.
Professor Lindsay added that if resistance does spread, “this research is important because it provides an opportunity to develop new drugs to block this resistance pathway.”
Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake called the threat of antibiotic resistance the “new black death” ahead of a parliamentary debate over a new report on the issue.
The review, conducted by Jim O’Neill, predicted 10 million lives would be lost annually by 2050 as bacteria become more drug-resistant.
“We do need a solution because antibiotics are absolutely life-saving,” said Dr Dryden. “We can't envisage our children dying of simple bacterial infections that were readily treatable. It's a shocking vision of the future.”
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