Superbugs: The End of Antibiotics

Written for HealthScienceNow

This subject makes me very uncomfortable; I’m a germaphobe. And maybe that’s why I decided to look at this issue, even though it makes me cringe. Come with me to look at the behemoth known the as the superbug and the fading superheroes, antibiotics.

The convenience of modern medicine and the preponderance of antibiotic medication has cast a foreboding shadow on the future of human health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have recognized that the excessive use and misuse of antibiotics, has engendered a strain of superbugs. Virulent bacteria are increasingly more difficult to treat with the class of carbapenem antibiotics, typically prescribed by physicians as the last line of defense in fighting certain diseases.

Resistant, possibly fatal strains of bacterias can result in MRSA, known colloquially as the flesh-eating bacteria, Clostridium Difficile, a potentially severe bacterial disease of the digestive system, and MDR-TB, multidrug-resistant Tuberculosis. An antimicrobial-resistant strain of bacteria, Klebsiella pneumoniae, can produce infections that cause meningitis, pneumonia and bloodstream infections, especially among people in healthcare settings or those with compromised immune systems.

As a professor of chemistry at The University of North Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, Matthew Redinbo’s research study has garnered a new perspective on the reason why some staph infections have become incurable. He observed a bacterial enzyme that actually nicks the DNA structure of the bacteria, leaving the strand to wander and attach to another cell, thus creating a mutant genome. This renders Vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic once able to vanquish S. aureus bacteria, useless.

If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling squeamish and wondering -- if the last line of defense is no longer valid, what's left, what’s next?

Redinbo and his team partnered with The California Institute of Technology in order to design a synthetic molecule that blocks the NES, the Nicking Enzyme in Staphylococcus, from doing damage to the DNA strand, effectively preventing the genes from going rogue. Encouraged by his research, Redinbo tags this time as “a post-antibiotic era.” And he’s not alone in his assessment.

Many scientists believe that antibiotic therapies as we know them, will disappear by the year 2030. In an interview with PBS, Arjun Srinivasan, associate director at the CDC emphatically noted that we’ve reached “the end of antibiotics, period.”

Some articles put a hugely fatalistic spin on the topic and while humankind may be subject to decimation, 2030 will not be that year; it’s far too premature for a stubborn lot of homosapiens. For those with hypochondriacal tendencies -- or strong concerns -- take some comfort in the research that’s underway. In the meantime, don’t travel to India where the majority of the world’s TB-infected population is concentrated, avoid prolonged exposure to crowds in unventilated areas, maintain a vigorous practice of hand-washing, and by all means, stay out of hospitals where you can actually get sick.

I wanted to explore this territory with some of you who share my feelings of dread and fear. Thank you for holding my hand, my very clean hand.