For years, doctors have warned about the dangers posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which could eventually make common ailments impossible to treat with drugs. But now, the day of the ultimate superbug is closer than ever.
On Thursday, researchers revealed that for the first time, they’ve found a case of U.S. bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotics. Researchers at Walter Reed found the germ in a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman diagnosed with an E. coli infection last month. The E. coli carried a specific gene, MCR-1, that rendered it immune to the antibiotic colistin — the drug doctors turn to to kill an infection when nothing else works.
The discovery “heralds the emergence of a truly pan-drug resistant bacteria,” doctors warned in the report about the woman’s case.
In this case, the bacteria was susceptible to other antibiotics and the woman was able to get treatment, according to reporting from NPR. However, far more dangerous than the specific case is the looming risk that the antibiotic-resistant gene will spread.
It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness. This is not where we need to be.
E. coli is a very common bacteria, and gene responsible for colistin resistance is a type that can pass easily between strains. If the gene gets into other E. coli strains or other types of bacteria — including ones already resistant to other antibiotics — then doctors will have no way to treat the infections. Illnesses and medical operations that used to be routine will become life-threatening.
This specific antibiotic-resistant gene is particularly worrying because colistin is the last-resort antibiotic for dangerous superbugs like the bacteria family CRE, known as the “nightmare bacteria.” If those bacteria get the MCR-1 gene, there will be no way to stop them. Even without the colistin resistance gene, in some cases they already kill up to 50 percent of infected patients.
CDC Director Tom Frieden said in an interview that this new development means that we’re not far from the “end of the road” for the effectiveness of antibiotics.
“We may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” he said. “I’ve been there for TB patients. I’ve cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness. This is not where we need to be.”
The lab at Walter Reed is now testing other samples from other U.S. patients with a similar type of E. coli, looking for the gene. It hasn’t been found yet, but testing is still in the early stages. Doctors first found the colistin-resistent gene in China last year, and it has since been detected in Europe. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist and one of the members of Congress who’s been calling to pass legislation aimed at curbing antibiotic resistance, said in a statement that “swift, aggressive, global action” is required.
“I have been sounding the alarm for years, and now, what we’ve been dreading has happened. We have an antibiotic-resistant superbug that can’t be killed by any known drug,” she said.
What we’ve been dreading has happened
Although some resistance is natural, the current high levels of resistance among bacteria are a result of the human overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
“If we don’t eliminate the unnecessary and unsafe practice of using 80 percent of our antibiotics to treat livestock at sub-therapeutic levels, we’ll never get out ahead of this growing public health crisis,” Rep. Slaughter warned, referring to the practice of treating livestock with a broad, general dose of antibiotics, which can lead to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are then transmitted to humans through the food supply.
Another primary factor in the development of resistance is the incorrect use of antibiotics in humans. According to a recent report by the CDC and the PEW Charitable Trusts, at least a third of antibiotics are given when the patient doesn’t need them, such as in cases of over-prescribing for minor illnesses like colds and sore throats. Including cases when antibiotics are misused — taken in the wrong dosage, or for the wrong amount of time — antibiotics are prescribed incorrectly roughly 50 percent of the time by the CDC’s estimates, providing a ripe environment for bacteria to hone their resistance.