Chicago Tribune: The challenges of trying to kill a new superbug

Scientists and political leaders have warned for years of the looming health peril posed by so-called superbugs — bacteria that have gained resistance to current antibiotics. Researchers across the globe are locked in an international arms race to find new, more potent antibiotics. This is a battle to the death — with tens of millions of lives possibly at stake: If superbugs prevail, common infections now widely treated with antibiotics (think strep) may become lethal for many people.

So we perked up at the news of a new class of antibiotics that can wipe out many infections in the lab and in animal tests, including some bugs resistant to many traditional antibiotics. Researchers at New York’sRockefeller University report the discovery of these antibiotics, called malacidins, in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Where did they find them? In dirt. Researchers extract DNA from the soil samples and then grow it in the lab and test its ability to KO bacteria.

This is an exciting development for the human side of this arms race. But it’s not a super-weapon to defeat superbugs once and for all.

One reason: There are too many bugs, and they’re too wily to be defeated by a single antibiotic. Some of the fiercest bacteria have not one skin (membrane) but two. Drugs that work their way through the first may not be able to pierce the second. And then, if an antibiotic manages to defeat both shields, it may be ejected by what’s known as an “efflux pump” in the cell. Think nightclub bouncer.

Another reason: These malacidins face years of testing before they may be ready for human use. “It’s a long road from exciting things happening in the lab to getting through a clinical process to the patient’s bedside,” Kathy Talkington, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project, tells us. The odds are stacked against new antibiotic products: Historically, only 1 in 5 infectious disease drugs that enters clinical testing will ultimately be proven safe and effective enough to reach the market, according to Pew.

For the past few years, Pew has been tracking the pipeline of antibiotics in clinical development that carry the potential to treat or prevent serious resistant bacterial infections. Prognosis: Too few new antibiotics are in development to treat the most dangerous infections. Of those in development, only 12 have the potential to address the most critical pathogens.

That’s why a joint federal-private partnership called CARB-X — Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Accelerator — aims to kick-start early-stage drug development. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is awarding a new cache of seed money to develop new antibiotics.

New drugs alone won’t eradicate superbugs, however. Doctors, too, play a major role. Many have become reluctant to prescribe antibiotics for patients who demand them even if they’re unlikely to work. An estimated 1 of every 3 antibiotics prescribed in outpatient settings is unnecessary, but there is evidence that suggests many doctors are throttling back.

Livestock producers help stoke this crisis by adding the drugs to animal feed to promote growth. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has now eliminated the use of medically important antibiotics for animal growth promotion. Smart move.

Unfortunately, victory is not at hand. Ever more powerful antibiotics will face ever more wily bacteria. The arms race never ends in the quest to humble one of the fiercest enemies humankind ever has faced.

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This editorial was written by the staff of the Chicago Tribune. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.

Chicago Tribune