Local researchers concerned about growing ‘superbug’ threat

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Local researchers say so called “nightmare bacteria” are worrisome because of their growing resistance to antibiotics.

While long considered powerful tools in the fight against illness and disease, antibiotic overuse isn’t helping the situation.

This is an extremely serious problem,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, professor of medicine and biology at the University at Buffalo.

“Right now the bacteria are winning the game. They are winning the race and we are now in catch up mode,” said Russo, who heads the infectious diseases division at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

Imagine getting an infection that can kill an individual no matter how healthy or wealthy?

It’s a scenario that has some public health officials and researchers concerned.

“I don’t think that at this point we can count on some new panacea antibiotic coming through that can kill every single bacteria,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, commissioner of the Erie County Health Department.

Consider the case of a Nevada woman in her 70s who died last year from an infection caused by a class of “superbugs” known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE).

The specific CRE, Klebsiella pneumoniae, was isolated from a wound specimen, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The patient developed septic shock and died in early September 2016.

“This is the first example of someone that acquired an infection due to a bacterium that’s resistant to all the antibiotics that are available to physicians in the United States,” said Russo.

CRE are difficult to treat because they’re highly resistant to antibiotics, and in the U.S. infect around 93 hundred people per year, and kill around 600, according to the CDC.

“This is going to spread. It’s going to get worse. There’s going to be many more deaths, and in the worst case scenario this could become catastrophic,” Russo said.

Burstein says antibiotics are difficult to develop and are not a big moneymaker for the drug industry.

“It’s not like a drug that, say, pharmaceuticals can make a lot of money; a medicine people take every day. It’s just hopefully for a short course and then it’s done,” Burstein said.

“Someday we may run out of options. There’s just a limited number of antibiotics out there,” she added.

Dr. John Crane, a biomedical researcher and UB professor, says the federal government’s approval process for new breakthrough antibiotic drugs needs to be fast tracked.

“That’s why it’s more important for government funded research to continue this on. Someone has to pick up the ball,” said Crane.

“If you ask the drug companies to do a study with a thousand patients it’s going to take them 10 or 15 years to just find that many people with this particular nasty bug,” he added.

“We should allow them to approve drugs more quickly with smaller sample sizes in humans.”

Bacteria become resistant when they’re exposed to antibiotics.

Essentially, they learn how to outsmart the drugs by mutating and sharing genetic information with other bacteria.

When that happens, treatment options become limited — and infections start to pose a greater risk.

“By using antibiotics when not necessary we encourage mutations or we select out bacteria that are already resistant so that they become one of the dominant bacteria in our intestinal tract, skin and elsewhere,” said Russo.

The search for new and powerful antibiotics is ongoing at the University at Buffalo and other institutions around the world.

Researchers hope to one day discover a knockout punch — before superbugs become an overwhelming force in the future.

“If this trend continues, and there’s every reason to believe it will, because there’s few if any antibiotics that are being developed right now that are active against these extremely resistant bacteria, we’re at risk for entering the phase in medicine when we had no antibiotics at all,” said Russo

While anyone can become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, most deaths occur from drug-resistant infections picked up in places like hospitals and nursing homes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“For most people, if you can stay out of the hospital, yes, your chance with coming down with one of these really bad drug resistant pathogens is relatively low,” said Crane.

There are ways to protect against drug-resistant infections.

First, don’t demand antibiotics from your doctor when you’re sick.

“People in the community shouldn’t expect that every time they see a healthcare provider for an illness that they walk out with a prescription for antibiotic,” Burstein explained. “In the bigger picture that can cause more harm than good.”

Also, think about safety and hygiene.

Experts recommend getting updated and regular vaccinations;

Wash your hands before eating and after using the restroom;

Wash your hands after handling uncooked food;

Cook meat and poultry thoroughly to kill off bacteria.

“If these highly drug-resistant organisms continue to spread, just think how it would undermine our entire medical system,” said Crane.

“Doctors would not want to be able to operate on a person that needed a heart surgery because of a fear they would develop a fatal infection and die before they even got out of the hospital,” Crane added.

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