Scientists Researching Solutions for Superbugs

In recent years, you have likely been hearing more and more about antibiotic-resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’ as they are sometimes called. This is becoming an increasing problem, and Australian scientists are undertaking research to find solutions.
Which bacteria are becoming resistant?

Antibiotic resistance is becoming apparent in some strains of:

  • Golden staph – this bug attacks post-operative patients at wound sites.
  • Enterococcus – can cause wound infection, urinary tract infections, blood poisoning and heart infection.
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae – causes meningitis and blood poisoning.
  • Haemophilus influenzae – causes bacterial meningitis, bronchitis and middle ear infection.
  • E-coli – responsible for gastroenteritis and urinary and genital tract infections.
  • Campylobacter – causes gastroenteritis.
  • Salmonella – responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning.
  • Tuberculosis – TB bacterial infection.
How antibiotics work

There are a number of families of antibiotics that work against different bacterial strains. They include:

  • Beta lactam – such as penicillin and cephalosporin. This family of antibiotics kills bacteria that are surrounded by a cell wall, and they work by blocking the process of cell wall building.
  • Macrolides – erythromycin for instance. Macrolides block bacterial ribosomes and prevent them from building proteins.
  • Quinolones – these work by breaking bacterial DNA strands and preventing them from being repaired. Examples include ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin.

Antibiotics have been wonderful for saving lives for many years. The trouble is they have often been overused and inappropriately prescribed, and this has led to the resistance problem.

How do some bacteria become resistant?

Antibiotic resistance seems to be based on the principle of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”

As antibiotics are taken, they kill many of the bugs that make us unwell, but some are able to resist the treatment through a number of mechanisms.

These include neutralising the antibiotic before it takes effect, pumping the antibiotic out, altering the attack site, gene mutation, or through acquiring a piece of DNA with resistance properties from other bacteria. The bacteria that are left behind then reproduce, transferring the antibiotic-resistant genes and creating new strains of superbugs.

What can be done?

There are few things we can all do to help, including:

  • Not taking antibiotics unnecessarily, such as for illnesses that are viral or that will pass without drug treatment.
  • Using scrupulous practices when handling food, including in the home.This includes washing raw vegetables and fruit and cooking meat products correctly to kill harmful bacteria.
Why cleaning is so important

It is particularly important for hospitals and medical centres to have good hygiene practices in place, and to use infection prevention and control techniques. Medical centre cleaning professionals who are well trained and
understand the importance of preventing cross contamination while cleaning are an important part of good hygiene protocols.

In 2014 science research units at Monash University were awarded grants of almost $10 million from the US National Institute of Health for the development of new therapies for treating infections. One of the treatments being studied is that of combining drugs with older types of antibiotics known as polymyxins.

It is hoped that the development of new therapies for the treatment of infections will stem the tide of antibiotic resistant superbugs in the near future.

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