Recently there were stories in the media about a new superbug that might kill us all. This started with the discovery of bacteria in China which are resistant to the drugs used when all other treatments have failed. So is the Chinese superbug going to kill us all or are the media making a fuss over nothing? Well no, and no.
Bacteria resistant to antibiotics are not new. They’ve been around for millions of years – much longer than humans or medicine. This is because antibiotics are naturally occurring substances produced by bacteria in soil or water to kill off the competition and gain an advantage.
But the competition doesn’t want to be killed off, so for millions of years bacteria have been evolving ways to shrug off the effects of antibiotics. And they are damn good at it. Then in 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and after a lot of effort during the Second World War it was developed into a useful drug. But even when he was accepting the Nobel Prize in 1945 Fleming warned: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.”
In an era of post-war optimism that wasn’t a message that anyone wanted to hear, so we chose not to.
In 1957 Harold Macmillan told us “you’ve never had it so good” – and in medical terms, he was right. We could treat nearly all bacterial infections, including deadly ones like tuberculosis, with a course of antibiotics. But complacency was setting in.
Back in the 1960s antibiotic-resistant bacteria were cropping up, but we stayed one step ahead of them by developing new antibiotics. This was a good business for drug companies –- while it lasted. Eventually, the pipeline ran dry. No new types of antibiotics have been discovered since the 1980s, and the bacteria have pulled level in the race.
Cue media stories of the post-antibiotic era in which simple infections are deadly, cancer therapy and transplants which wipe out the immune system are impossible, and childbirth is a dangerous lottery.
So are we doomed? Nope. The antibiotic era of medicine may be coming to an end, but we have the ability to go on beating the bugs. We could, if we wanted to, edit the human genome to make us resistant to AIDS and many other diseases – but there are reasons why we might choose not to do that. Rather than relying on nature for our antibiotics, we can use nanotechnology to manufacture new ones. We can outsmart some of the tricks bacteria use to make us sick by jamming their communication systems.
Given enough time and money to respond, science can save us. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.