If you’ve ever experienced food poisoning from E. coli, you already know just how unpleasant an infection can be. But what if there were no treatment on the market that could wipe out the bacteria? If a new study out of China is any indication, that might soon be our terrifying new reality.
Published in the online edition of The Lancet last month, the study identified a new strain of E. coli that was able to resist all known antibiotic drugs — including colistin, considered the antibiotic of last resort by doctors and researchers. After falling out of favor in the 1970s due to harsh side effects and concerns about its toxicity, the drug has started to be prescribed again in recent years to fight multi-drug resistant bacteria. Now, the drug-resistant E. coli has been identified in Chinese livestock, German poultry, and, most troubling of all, a Danish man.
What makes this mutation so terrifying isn’t merely the fact that some pockets of the disease are now impossible to treat. It’s that the gene responsible for the resistance, MCR-1, can be shared within a group of bacteria rather than gradually being passed from one generation to the next. Even more troubling is the fact that this resistance isn’t limited to E. coli — due to the unique nature of the gene, it can even be transferred between different types of bacteria.
The fact that this is happening is disturbing enough, but the reason why is infuriating. It turns out that farmers in China has been using to fatten up their livestock and keep animals from succumbing to disease within cramped, filthy factory farms. Scientists have been warning the public for decades that widespread antibiotic use in agriculture could give rise to nightmare scenarios of multi-drug resistant superbugs, but because they allow farmers to raise meat more cheaply and easily, it’s been difficult to convince the industry to change its practices, particularly in developing nations.
While there has been renewed research into antibiotics in recent years, it may not come soon enough. Already, the CDC reports that 2 million Americans acquire antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and 23,000 of those people die when treatment of the disease fails. While there are currently 36 new antibiotics in development, it’s likely only one in five will be approved by the FDA — and that’s assuming clinical trials even prove them effective at all. All in all, it could be years before an effective new drug hits the market.