A virulent superbug recently made its way on to U.S. soil that may be a harbinger of untreatable diseases to come.
Researchers uncovered two cases of an E. coli bacteria that have become so genetically resistant that even last-resort antibiotics won't kill it, according to the medical journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
In both cases, the bug carried a mobile loop of DNA called mcr-1 that made the pathogen impervious. Even the tried and true Colistin, which doctors are hesitant to use because it may damage a patient's kidneys, had no effect.
Although only the two U.S. cases have been found, mcr-1 has been identified in livestock and humans in approximately 20 countries, according to a Reuters article by Ransdell Pierson titled, "Infection Experts Warn of More U.S. Superbug Cases in Coming Conths."
So far, 19 strains of E. coli have harbored mcr-1. Compounding its global proliferation is the fact that the DNA loop can easily attach itself to other bacteria, potentially rendering various forms of E. coli and other hostile bacteria either forcefully resistant or completely untreatable.
Because E. coli can be easily transmitted through poor hygiene, experts such as Dr. Brad Spellberg and Dr. David Van Duin agree that additional cases are imminent, Pierson reports.
More than 2 million Americans are infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacterium each year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. More than 23,000 people perish as a direct result, while many die from conditions complicated by these infections.
"Within the next two to three years, it's going to be fairly routine for infections to occur in the United States for which we have no (effective) drugs available," Washington University Medical Center associate professor Gautam Dantas reportedly said.
Since British bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, more than 100 antibiotic compounds have been created.
Unfortunately, since 1987, researchers have failed to identify a single new class of antibiotic medications to combat this growing threat, according to the L.A. Times piece by Melissa Healy titled, "A 'Slow Catastrophe' Unfolds as the Golden Age of Antibiotics Comes to an End."
One of the significant reasons the health community continues to fall behind the curve stems from the dysfunctional economics driving the pharmaceutical industry.
The industry is forced to spend millions in research, development and FDA approvals. The shareholders of profit-driven private corporations want ROI (Return on Investment). Pills that millions take every day such as cholesterol inhibitors and high blood pressure medications provide good return.
However, antibiotics are prescribed sparingly in order to combat resistance. Even newly-developed antibiotics can be rendered obsolete at any time when something like mcr-1 shows up. That can put a company's investment in the red.
The profit and loss math simply doesn't work in the current business climate. Unless government incentives change the playing field, or a pandemic strikes, Big Pharma knows how its bread gets buttered and antibiotics research isn't seated at the king's feast.
To at least monitor the problem, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to use $21 million to expand surveillance at laboratories operated by all 50 state health departments and seven larger regional labs.
Such federal funding could pay for more-sensitive equipment to test for antibiotic resistance in bacteria samples.
According to Jean Patel, deputy director of the CDC's Office of Antimicrobial Resistance, the effort would improve tracking of antibiotic-resistance and mcr-1.
The insidious spread of antibiotic-resistant and immune bacteria may not morph the American landscape into an episode of "The Walking Dead" any time soon. But complacency could eventually have a high cost.
As Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest was so aptly quoted in the L.A. Times, "It's not apocalyptic until it is. Shame on us if we wait until bodies are in the street."