Newsweek

We're Running Out of Effective Drugs to Fight Off an Army of Superbugs

Antibiotics have saved countless lives over the years, but as deadly bacteria grow immune, those miracle drugs stop working.
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FE_Superbugs_01_590280661_BANNER Source: SCIENCE ARTWORK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty

In January, Columbia University revealed that four patients at its Irving Medical Center in New York had been sick with an unusual version of E. coli , a common gut bacterium. Although the news largely escaped attention in the media, it ricocheted through the world of infectious disease experts. E. coli is a relatively common bacterium and benign when it's in the gut, where it usually lives, but in the wrong places—such as in lettuce or ground beef, or our bloodstream—it can turn deadly. When antibiotics prove ineffective against an E. coli infection, as many as half the patients with it die within two weeks.

That's exactly why the Columbia E. coli was so worrying. Over the past decade or two, E. coli has developed resistance to one antibiotic after another. For some infected patients, their last hope is the antibiotic colistin, a toxic substance with potential side effects that include kidney and brain damage. The Columbia E. coli had a mutation in a gene, MCR-1, that confers a terrifying attribute: imperviousness to colistin.

"We're looking to the shelf for the next antibiotic, and there's nothing there," says Erica Shenoy, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We're facing the specter of patients with infections we can't treat."

Ever since an experimental miracle drug called penicillin was rushed to a Boston hospital in 1942 to save the lives of 13 victims of a nightclub fire, medical researchers have discovered more than 100 new antibiotics. We've needed each and every one of them—and they're not enough. It's not just E. coli . Drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus , Enterobacteriaceae and Clostridium difficile have been steadily overcoming antibiotics; one study found that the number of deaths due to resistant infections quintupled between 2007 and 2015. Recently, treatment-resistant versions of the fungus Candida auris have shown up in hospitals in New York City and Chicago, killing half of infected patients.

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The U.S. Centers

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