Over at the UK Guardian, Sarah Boseley reports on a study in Lancet that describes a gene that makes bacteria highly resistant to antibiotics. It's a gene that's appeared in E. coli and has already jumped between a few kinds of related bacteria. It's just another harbinger of the post-antibiotic future, and last week Boseley outlined what we might expect in a world where antibiotics no longer work:
• Transplant surgery becomes virtually impossible. Organ recipients have to take immune-suppressing drugs for life to stop rejection of a new heart or kidney. Their immune systems cannot fight off life-threatening infections without antibiotics.
• Removing a burst appendix becomes a dangerous operation once again. Patients are routinely given antibiotics after surgery to prevent the wound becoming infected by bacteria. If bacteria get into the bloodstream, they can cause life-threatening septicaemia.
• Pneumonia becomes once more "the old man's friend". Antibiotics have stopped it being the mass-killer it once was, particularly among the old and frail, who would lapse into unconsciousness and often slip away in their sleep. Other diseases of old age, such as cancer, have taken over.
• Gonorrhea becomes hard to treat. Resistant strains are already on the rise. Without treatment, the sexually transmitted disease causes pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and ectopic pregnancies.
• Tuberculosis becomes incurable – first we had TB, then multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) and now there is XDR-TB (extremely drug resistant TB). TB requires very long courses (six months or more) of antibiotics. The very human tendency to stop taking or forget to take the drugs has contributed to the spread of resistance.
Luckily, medical researchers are working on alternatives to antibiotics - one group has already come up with a way to kill the deadly MRSA bacteria without using antibiotics at all.