Multidrug-resistant organisms are showing up in top-flight hospitals
I hope you never have this experience: a loved one is hospitalized. Her doctors tell you her infection is resistant to antibiotics. She dies. More than 60,000 American families go through that experience each year — and the number is almost certain to rise.
Multidrug-resistant organisms are showing up in top-flight hospitals — like the klebsiella found in the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center this year, which may have led to the deaths of seven patients. Even infections that used to be a breeze to treat, like gonorrhea, are becoming incurable.
In much of the world, of course, bacterial disease is a routine cause of tragedy. Tuberculosis alone kills 1.4 million people a year. One reason for this staggeringly high figure is that most people in the world are too poor to pay for most medicines. But another reason is that some strains of tuberculosis bacteria have become resistant to most of the drugs we have. Even after two years of toxic treatment, drug-resistant tuberculosis has a fatality rate of about 50 percent.
What makes the rapid loss of antibiotics to drug resistance particularly alarming is that we are failing to make new ones. We are emptying our medicine chest of the most important class of medicines we ever had. And the cause can be traced, for the most part, to two profound problems.
The first is economic. Historically, the drug industry thrived on antibiotics. But if an antibiotic is useful against only one type of bacterium, relatively few people need it during its patent life. And if an antibiotic is “broad spectrum,” meaning it works on many different types of bacteria, wider use shortens its commercial life because it quickens the pace at which bacteria develop resistance. Moreover, antibiotics are designed to cure an acute disease — not to palliate a chronic one — so people need them only for a limited time. Compared with drugs that are used for years to treat widespread conditions like highcholesterol or asthma, antibiotics pale as a corporate investment.
The second challenge stems from the nature of bacteria. Though brainless, they are brainy, enjoying a highly effective collective intelligence. Large numbers of independently mutating bacteria test adaptations to group problems, like how to survive antibiotics. What works — like modifying the bacterial proteins to which antibiotics would otherwise bind — wins. As bacteria become more adept at evading antibiotics, it has become much harder to find drugs that can beat them back.
Merge these two problems — scientific and economic — and the result is a drug-development disaster: the prospects are so discouraging that few companies bother to try anymore.
How can we confront the critical shortage of new antibiotics when both the scientific approach and the economic model are letting us down? We can change both paradigms.
via The New York Times – CARL F. NATHAN
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