Antibiotic-resistant bacteria seem like they belong in a Stephen King novel rather than the news, with headlines threatening a return to pre-modern healthcare, when the mildest infection could threaten your life. In a BBC article, Professor Neil Woodford from the Health Protection Agency gives us a worst case scenario example: "You could be gardening and prick your finger on a rose bush, get a bacterial infection and go into hospital and doctors can't do anything to save your life. You live or die based on chance.” He hastens to add "But for many infections that wouldn't happen."
unfortunately, this problem isn't fiction
There are a number of reasons why antibiotic resistant strains have developed in recent years. Not only have antibiotics been overprescribed, but animals have also been given antibiotics in mass farming routines. As one of our team members explained, "livestock is injected with antibiotics that stay in the meat. Therefore, eating meat is like taking a low dose antibiotic that will only slow down the sensitive bacteria, forcing them to learn how to break it. This is how resistance strains evolve, through constant exposure to low doses of antibiotics from food."
There is also the problem of drug development. There have been no major breakthroughs in antibiotics since 1987 and, according to Professor Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, only four pharmaceutical companies work on antibiotic development today compared to 18 companies 20 years ago. The World Economic Forum attributes this to the lack of incentives for pharmaceutical companies to research and develop new antibiotics, especially compared to the rewards of other diseases and conditions that have seen more investment recently.
While researching this blog entry, Branding Science discovered that we have an in-house expert on antibiotic resistant bacteria. Becky Geffen wrote her masters dissertation on antibiotic resistant bacteria and has kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions for the blog today:
BSc: Can you give us more of an idea of how the situation stands right now?
Becky: There are hundreds of different antibiotics out there, with a number of different mode of actions, and so even with the more severe infections, there is a vast range of antibiotics on hand ready to fight the bacteria.
The odd case where people die from bacterial infections are from really unfortunate circumstances where the bacteria have developed a different way of breaking down the antibiotic. These are firstly very rare, and secondly there is generally at least one antibiotics that will work, even if it will present the patient with unpleasant side effects.
BSc: How do you see things improving in the future?
Becky: The main issue surrounding antibiotic development is that we need to first understand how these resistant bacteria are degrading the antibiotics before we can find new drugs to overcome this, and this is where academia comes in. So even if new antibiotics are not at the forefront of pharmas mind, there is research going on in the background surrounding the mechanism of action of these pesky bugs. Until this is done, we almost want pharma focusing on other therapy areas rather than churning out ‘me-too’ antibiotics.
BSc: Do you know any interesting facts about antibiotic resistant bacteria that you’d like to share with our readers?
Becky: I cheated and looked these up as I don’t think anything from my own research would be that interesting to anyone but me! In an Egyptian study, Dr Mervat Kassem showed that green tea could boost antibiotics antibacterial properties by 3 times. So the next time you get ill, start chugging back the green tea. And antibiotics have a sinister side as well; penicillin is the number 1 cause of anaphylactic shock.
Written by Alexandra Zaleski in our London office.
Further reading and sources: