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Drugs help superbugs evolve, study says

Drugs help superbugs evolve, study says

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Superbugs get even more super: Doctors treat patients with aggressive drug therapy. The multi-drug resistant bacteria isn’t going away, so it is time to rethink treatment practices.

Scientists have discovered a new superbug strain of salmonella and are worried the potentially deadly bug will spread around the world. This new strain, which formed due to the use of antibiotics in farm livestock, is resistant to the antibiotics normally used to treat salmonella infections.

With superbugs like this one on the rise, it’s important to monitor the food supply before new strains of superbugs spread globally. But there's more to do, especially when it comes to rethinking how infections are treated.

According to researchers at Queen’s University, using aggressive drug therapy is helping superbugs evolve. Thus, better strategies are needed to prevent drug-resistant mutations from occurring and prevent them from spreading from person-to-person and further into communities.

“The universally accepted strategy of aggressive medication to kill all targeted disease pathogens has the problematic consequence of giving any drug-resistant disease pathogens that are present the greatest possible evolutionary advantage,” Troy Day, a professor at Queen’s University, said in a statement.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a bacterium responsible for infections that a number of antibiotics can’t kill. When multi-drug resistant bacteria enters the blood stream through cuts in the skin or during surgery, the foreign invaders launch a potentially life-threatening attack on the body.

Superbugs began as a known threat in hospitals and nursing homes, especially in patients with weakened immune systems, but has now spread out into the community in crowded locker rooms and beyond. MRSA infects 280,000 people in the United States each year; 28,000 of the cases are fatal.

To improve the situation, researchers need to know more about the treatment of superbug infections so that the spread can be curbed and mutations can be prevented. The researchers at Queen’s said that a century ago, a popular malaria drug, is now “useless” in treating malaria in parts of Africa.

Antibiotics flirt with the same destiny.

Some experts have gone as far to say we are at the end of the antibiotic era. In 2010, The Guardian painted a dark picture of what the world would be like if antibiotics were useless: Transplant surgery wouldn’t be able to be done without running the risk of infection from life-threatening bacteria, routine appendix operation would become dangerous once again, pneumonia would return as a killer, gonorrhea would become resistant (and it has, scientists discover a drug resistant strain of STD in Japan), and treatment for tuberculosis wouldn’t work.

According to a recent New Scientist story, superbugs are going to be here forever: Mutations either occur in the bacterial DNA or when bacteria acquire resistant genes through horizontal gene transfer. When doctors over-prescribe antibiotics, bacteria can become resistant to multiple antibiotics.

After infection, early detection is key, as toxins are released into the body and can cause disease. Ideally, drug treatment strategies would allow the body’s immune system to kick into gear, the Queen's researchers said. It’s about finding the right balance, between a good treatment strategy - without conferring resistance to the very drugs designed to kill them.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure