It's taken bacteria just 88 years to beat all our antibiotics

Nothing spreads like fear. Picture: Warner Bros

US Department of Defense researchers have reported a 49-year-old woman in Pennsylvania was infected with a strain of E coli which was resistant to colistin, the antibiotic noted as being our “drug of last resort”.

That’s because up until now, colistin was the antibiotic doctors used when all other antibiotics failed.

Dr Nirav Patel, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University, says the discovery of the case of this particular resistance mechanism in the US is “extremely concerning” for several reasons.

For starters, although the MCR-1 gene has been found in humans outside of China in the past six months, this was the first case reported in the US.

Use of colistin in the US is relatively low, and thus, Dr Patel says, “it is concerning that even in this environment, the resistance gene has been identified”.

The patient also has not travelled overseas for “many months” so it’s highly likely she picked up the gene in something she ate.

Dr Patel says it will now “only be a matter of time when a patient gets a truly serious infection for which we have no viable antibiotics to treat them with”.

“The concern for pan-drug-resistant antibiotics is real,” he says.

But Dr Patel’s main concern is more in line with the development of antibiotics themselves.

The more humans turn to antibiotics – in sickness and in promoting animal growth for food – the more resistant organisms become to them.

As antibiotics become more ineffective, doctors have been turning more and more to colistin, and now, the inevitable end game is playing out.

Colistin is widely used to help animals build muscle mass and survive mass farming. Picture: Getty Images

“Now there are no other drugs to turn to,” he says.

Then notes that penicillin, the most famous antibiotic of them all, was first described just 88 years ago.

So in just 88 years in which humans have developed hundreds of antibiotics, the bacteria have now beaten the most potent of them all.

And studies of bacteria trapped beneath the permafrost in Canada that are 30,000 years old, and a cave system isolated for over 4 million years, have shown even those bacteria are capable of resisting modern antibiotics.

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