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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria arrives on U.S. shores from South Asia

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'Superbug' antibiotic-resistant bacteria has arrived in the U.S. from India and Pakistan, and it's got doctors and scientists concerned.

In the war against germs, bacteria are gaining the biological upper hand.

A mutation that makes some bacteria resistant to nearly all antibiotics on the market has become increasingly prevalent in India and Pakistan.

Now, that bacteria has found in people in the U.K. and the U.S. who got medical care in those countries, reports the New York Times.

The gene mutation, called NDM-1 ("New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase"), is of concern because it could very well spread across the world, rendering our antibiotic ammunition useless against the bacteria that have it.

It's hardly the first antibiotic-resistant strain to appear -- MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a common one that's known for being difficult to treat -- but it's got physicians and scientists concerned nonetheless.

A quick primer about antibiotics: penicillin was the first-high profile antibiotic, discovered by Nobel laureate Alexander Fleming in 1928. A hit, it was mass-produced in time for the Second World War.

Since then, it's been a slow march to find new, broader, more powerful antibiotics -- but as doctors began prescribing them for nearly every malady, bacteria fought back, evolving to better resist them.

In recent years, drug production is having a hard time keeping up. When MRSA reared its ugly head in 2008, doctors had few options left to treat infections.

Sarah Bosely writes in The Guardian:

There are one or two drugs doctors can then use as a last resort, but they are either toxic or do not work well. Antibiotics have always had a limited lifespan because bacteria are proficient at evolving to survive.

Within six years of penicillin's introduction in 1944, 50% of Staphylococcus aureus were resistant.

The problem with bacteria that carry the NDM-1 gene is that they're resistant to our current crop of "last resort" antibiotics, called carbapenems.

Furthermore, the genetic mutation has been found in E. coli and in Klebsiella pneumoniae, responsible for respiratory and urinary infections, respectively.

A study funded by pharma giant Wyeth (now of Pfizer) and the European Union tracked the spread of the mutation from India and Pakistan to Britain. It was published this week in the journal Lancet.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded the first three cases of NDM-1 resistance in June.

The big threat isn't that the bacteria will spread between individuals. Rather, it's that it will show up in the closed environments of hospitals.

Nevertheless, India has denied the accusation that the strain began there, calling it "unscientific" and "anti-India."

Update: SmartPlanet science editor Boonsri Dickinson offers her take on the news.

Photo: Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria. (U.S. CDC)

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure