Scientists have warned we may be on the brink of a post-antibiotic era, after discovering bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic tested.
The newfound bacteria was said to ward off even ‘last resort’ antibiotics like colistin; this was seen in patients and livestock in China.
While it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can manifest into greater problems. Researchers are concerned that resistance would spread around the world, and raise the spectre of untreatable infections.
Bacteria becoming completely resistant to treatment could plunge medicine back into the dark ages. Common infections could once again become fatal, while surgery and cancer therapies, which are reliant on antibiotics, would be under threat.
The new mutation has been dubbed the MCR-1 gene. In these specific trials, the gene was able to fend off the powerful colistin antibiotic from killing the bacteria. Now, the resistance has spread between a range of popular bacterial strains and species, including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
“If MRC-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.
“At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do.”
Interestingly, colisitin has met resistances in forms of bacteria before. But this is different says the Chinese researchers, as the mutation uncannily is shared very easily amongst other bacteria.
“The transfer rate of this resistance gene is ridiculously high, that doesn’t look good,” said Prof Mark Wilcox, from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. He’s already witnessing the beginning of this change in antibiotic eras; his hospital is now dealing with multiple cases “where we’re struggling to find an antibiotic” every month.
The greatest fear amongst those in the know is the new resistance gene plaguing other hospitals, which would in turn lead to bacteria being resistant to ALL treatments – or ‘pan-resistance’.
The wheels are already turning; the Chinese government is moving swiftly to address the problem, and new drugs are in development, which may delay this antibiotic apocalypse (though none are close for actual use yet).
The repercussions of these findings and the MCR-1 gene are massive. Unless there’s a new antibiotic discovery, or something that can deal with this super-bacterium, we face the reality of increasing numbers of patients for whom we will need to say, ‘Sorry, there is nothing I can do to cure your infection.’