Superbugs and antibiotic resistance are hot topics at the minute in the world of medicine and science. A recent UN summit in September focussed on antimicrobial resistance, only the fourth time in history that a health topic has been discussed at the UN General Assembly.
The war has been raging for a long time. Since penicillin was first discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming, we’ve been on a downward spiral. At first scientists were discovering tons of new antibiotics, and Doctors rejoiced. Patients could have life saving surgeries, and it didn’t pose a huge risk to their health. Back in the ye olden days, a cut or graze literally could be the death of you. Hurrah for modern medicine!
Could you imagine not being able to have your tonsils removed, or not being able to have chemo because the risk of infection would be too high? This isn’t just the distant past, this is the near future. Worldwide, we’ve used too many antibiotics too often over the years, and not for the right reasons. Only by using antibiotics sparingly and when actually required will we begin to fight this resistance. But is it too late? New antibiotics are being discovered, but not at the rate they used to be. At the same time, bacteria are evolving extremely fast. Whatever we throw at them, they work around it. And they’re getting better at it. It’s terrifying.
The timeline from discovering a potential antibiotic or new drug in the lab to it being prescribed in the clinical is around 10 years. That’s a hell of a long time. While we’re waiting for some new antibiotics so that we can still have hip replacements, have a look at this brilliant time-lapse that shows E.coli evolution in action.
How do bacteria become resistant, I hear you say? Just like us, bacteria have DNA. Although they can do something that we can’t. They can share parts of their DNA with other bacteria. Some bacteria are inherently resistant to certain antibiotics, so when they share the gene for that resistance, we can end up with populations of bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics we used to treat them, so we have to use more powerful antibiotics.
If we treat somebody with antibiotics, and even one bacterium has managed to become resistant to it, we give it an advantage. By killing off the bacteria that are still sensitive to the antibiotic, the resistant one suddenly has a lot more room and resources to grow. Before you know it, a new strain of resistant bacteria has emerged. When antibiotics are given unnecessarily, or a full course of antibiotics isn’t completed, we give the resistant bacteria a boost. This is why it’s important that when you have a cold, or any other ailment caused by a virus, that we don’t take antibiotics. They also won’t do anything to help you fight a virus, so you’d be taking tablets for no reason.
We’ve lost many battles along the way, with lots of antibiotics now almost useless, and some bacteria showing resistance to our last defence antibiotics. However, with science and technology progressing at the rate it is we have to win this war. Right?