Super-bugs Capture Attention As A Worldwide Health Threat

About 2 million Americans catch drug-resistant infections each year, and 23,000 die, according to the CDC.

As superbugs capture attention as a worldwide health threat, Washington University will be part of a national campaign against drug-resistant bacteria with a $2 million federal grant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded $14 million to 25 medical schools and other organizations for research into how microorganisms in the body, known as the microbiome, can track and prevent infections by outsider, drug-resistant germs.

“Understanding the role the microbiome plays in antibiotic-resistant infections is necessary to protect the public’s health,” Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, said in a statement. “We think it is key to innovative approaches to combat antibiotic resistance, protect patients, and improve antibiotic use.”

The microbiome includes “good” bacteria and other beneficial organisms that live in the skin and in the digestive and respiratory tracts. Antibiotics that are supposed to fight “bad” bacteria can disrupt the natural habitat by unbalancing the good and bad. Then drug-resistant bacteria can take over and create an environment for out-of-control bugs, including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) and clostridium difficile (C. diff.).

Overexposure to antibiotics has been blamed for the rise in superbugs, with the CDC estimating that one in three antibiotic prescriptions is unnecessary.

The research project will look at how early exposure to antibiotics affects the development of the microbiome and whether there are better ways to protect the microbiome.

Four teams of researchers at Washington University were named to the local project:

  • Dr. Jeffrey Henderson will lead a team working to identify how diet and metabolism interact with the gut microbiome in a study to combat C. diff. intestinal infections.
  • A team led by Gautam Dantas will study the long-term effects of antibiotic therapy in premature infants and how their digestive microbiomes are affected.
  • Dr. Jennie Kwon will study antibiotics and the microbiome as it relates to pneumonia.
  • Dr. Brian Gage will help look at hemorrhages linked to the use of blood thinners.

The United Nations General Assembly focused on superbugs — in a rare discussion of health issues. The meeting comes after a new superbug resistant to last-resort antibiotics infected a Pennsylvania woman over the summer, and a resistant strain of E. coli was recently found in a 2-year-old Connecticut girl.

The CDC recommends increased testing for the superbug gene among certain types of E. coli bacteria that show resistance to the powerful antibiotic colistin. The gene spreads readily among bacteria, and it could make these multi-drug-resistant strains almost impossible to treat.

A cluster of gonorrhea infections in Hawaii has shown resistance to all treatments. Doctors are increasingly worried that the common sexually transmitted disease is gaining strength as one of the most urgent superbug threats. If untreated, the disease can lead to infertility.

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