Researchers in China have identified a gene which makes infectious bacteria, such as E-coli, highly resistant to polymyxins — the last group of antibiotics left after all others have failed.
The discovery suggests the gene can easily be transferred to bacteria with the potential to cause epidemics.
Microbiologist and senior lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) Dr Roy Sleator said the discovery was “worrying” but not something totally unexpected to those working in the field.
“It is worrying but I suppose it’s not something that has come out of the blue. Ever since Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 we have been having to deal with resistance to antibiotics.
“However, what makes this different is that this gene makes the bacteria resistant to the last line of defence. The mobile genetic element here means that the propensity for it to spread to other bacteria is huge,” he said.
Dr Sleator said that because large pharmaceutical companies have moved away from developing antibiotics as it was not financially viable, scientists here were examining alternative therapies as a way of treating superbugs.
“Here in CIT we are looking at alternative therapies to traditional antibiotics such as phage therapy. It’s essentially where you use a virus to knock out the bacteria. If the bacteria develops a resistance, so does the virus,” he said.
Dr Sleator said scientists had to view the latest discovery as an opportunity to work harder to discover alternative ways of dealing with superbugs.
Biology lecturer and antiobiotic resistance expert, Dr Fiona Walsh of Maynooth University said the discovery of new antibiotics was needed for the sake of public health needs rather than for economic motives but warned that this could take years.
“I think the economic aspect of antibiotic production really needs to be taken out of the equation so that we can facilitate the discovery of new antibiotics. It’s very difficult to be honest. It’s something that we almost lost the skills for because we haven’t developed antibiotics really in the last 50 years,” she said.