About 23,000 deaths due to approximately 2 million infections by antibiotic resistant bacteria occur each year in the US. Additionally, failed antibiotic treatments result in an estimated $20 billion spent on health care. The bacteria that cause these deaths have been called “superbugs.” Most recently, 7 deaths from “superbugs” at a UCLA hospital were spread from patient to patient through endoscopes that were not yet FDA approved. The media has been using the term “superbug” for years now, but what does it even mean?
In the mid 90s, the term “superbug” was used sporadically in peer reviewed journals. Notably, these articles highlighted emerging antibiotic resistance in strains of E. coli, Streptococcus, Enterococci, and importantly Staphylococcus. Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged only one year after the first use of methicillin as an antibiotic in 1959. MRSA is now one of the most widespread pathogens and common causes of hospital acquired infection. As a result of methicillin resistance, one of the antibiotics most widely used to treat MRSA in the 90s was vancomycin.
In 2002 in Michigan, one of the first reports of vancomycin resistant MRSA, now dubbed VRSA, came to light. An article in Nature used to term “Superbug” to describe the vancomycin resistant organisms. Now superbug is commonly used by the media to describe any variety of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Unfortunately “superbug” is not descriptive, and has been used to headline deaths by not only MRSA, but also antibiotic resistant strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae, Clostridium difficile, Acinetobacter baumannii, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, to list a few of the dozens.
There are several classes of antibiotics, each which exert their antimicrobial action in a different way. Similarly there are several different mechanisms by which antibiotic resistance occurs. For example, aminoglycoside antibiotics are able to bind to and block the bacterial ribosome, which effectively inhibits or alters bacterial translation, resulting in cell death. Some bacteria have acquired genes that encode proteins that can bind to and modify these aminoglycoside antibiotics. Modification of the aminoglycoside renders it inert, and unable to kill the cell. Several classes of antibiotics are shown in the figure above, along with a few mechanisms of resistance. “Superbug” doesn’t describe the type of bacterial infection, nor does it inform about the mechanism of resistance.
Only 12 FDA approved antibiotics have been developed since 2000. In the 90s, 20 antibiotics were FDA approved, and 43 in the 80s. The steady decrease in antibiotic development is a result of several compounding factors.
1) A new drug takes an estimated 10 years to develop from scratch. Most drugs fail at some point between initial discovery, in vitro testing, animal testing, and clinical trials.
2) Drugs are expensive to develop. If you want a profit you make a drug that people take for life, not week like most antibiotics. This ties into point 3.
3) Antibiotic resistance is often detected within years of its initial use in the clinic. Therefore the time an antibiotic is actually relevant and useful is relatively low compared to drugs that treat arthritis or cardiovascular disease.
4) The low hanging fruit have been harvested, and nobody wants to pioneer the more difficult work. A majority of the antibiotic research presented at conferences, such as ICAAC, deal with betalactamases. The first antibiotic to be discovered, penicillin, is a betalactamase antibiotic. Dozens of investigators flocked to study the betalactamases after penicillin’s discovery. Graduate students and trainees from those labs then went to start their own labs, doing research on betalactamases. And now 50 years down the line, despite having a dozen classes of antibiotics, a majority of the antibiotic-focused academic labs study betalactamases. It’s easy to study betalactamases because it’s what we’ve been doing for half a decade. Moving forward is easier when the foundation is already set.
A recent article in Wired emphasized the need for more spending in the field of antibiotics. Only 1.2% of all funding from the NIH goes toward antibiotic resistance. The NIH budget has remained stagnant in the last decade, with a whopping 0.5% increase for 2015 to a grand total of ~$30 billion. To put this in perspective: The total federal budget in 2014 was ~$3.5 trillion. We don’t just need more money going toward antibiotics. We need more money going toward research in general.
Antibiotic resistance is and will continue to be a key issue in the years to come. Many pathogens have been dubbed “super-bugs” as a result of their ability to persist in the presence of multiple antibiotics. Some bacterial pathogens, like totally drug-resistant tuberculosis, MRSA, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Acinetobacter baumannii are of particular interest because of their clinical prevalence and ability to quickly acquire drug resistance.
One primary concern with antibiotic resistance is the lack of new drug development. The median cost of developing a new drug is $4.2 billion dollars (forbes article), and without proper antibiotic stewardship, a drug may only be useful for 2 or 3 years. That’s not much return on investment. Big pharmaceuticals will not dump money into a drug without the prospect of long term revenue.
However, there are novel ways to tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance without the billion bucks. The most heavily researched mechanism of antibiotic resistance is mediated by a class of enzymes called betalactamases. 80% of the research in the field of antibiotic resistance has been focused on betalactams, and we seem to have forgotten that there are several other classes of antibiotics that we can play with. I discussed the problem of such heavy focus on one antibiotic here: Gripes with antibiotic resistance research.
Bacteria have gained resistance to every class of antibiotics including aminoglycosides, tetracyclines, quinolones, and polymyxins. Each method of resistance is typically granted by an enzyme, and these enzymes should be new drug targets. If we can inhibit an enzyme that grants resistance, then by coupling the new drug with an old antibiotic, we can reutilize obsolete antibiotics.
Another method that has recently gained traction is the inhibition of virulence factors. Most bacteria are not virulent, and incapable of infecting humans. Remember, the human body is an incredibly harsh environment for a microbe. However, those that are virulent typically carry genetic determinants that give them the ability to colonize a host. For example, Escherichia coli is a commensal bacteria of the human gut, but some strains have gained the ability to produce toxins or adhere to particular mucosal surfaces, making these strains virulent. The development of new drugs to inhibit virulence may be able to prevent disease. I briefly described one such method in Dealing with antibiotic resistance through anti-virulence factors, where inhibition of a toxin leads to survival of mice and protection from disease.
One process that can be considered a virulence factor is quorum sensing, a mechanism for bacteria to detect population density. Bacteria excrete peptides that they also have receptors for, and when the concentration of bacteria increases, so too does the excreted peptides. When the population reaches a particular concentration, gene expression changes and may induce virulence factors. Pseudomonas aeruginosa and A. baumannii are opportunistic human pathogens, and through quorum sensing are able to coordinate the formation of biofilms, a virulence trait. Inhibition of the quorum sensing may inhibit the progression of disease, and a method for discovering drugs that can inhibit this system is described in this paper published this month in PNAS: A high-throughput screen for quorum-sensing inhibitors that target acyl-homoserine lactone synthases.
The growing issue of antibiotic resistance is critical to global health, but the problem is still just a pea under a mattress and not enough attention has turned its way. Translational research and drug development are absolutely integral to advancements in the biomedical sciences, but basic research will give insight to novel drug targets and molecular mechanisms that we can utilize to cure disease. The pre-antibiotic era and the days where a common strep-throat or UTI would kill you are gone. However, without progress in research, stewardship, and activism, we could certainly regress.