Antibiotic resistance now 'a public health problem of global proportions,' researcher warns

A McMaster expert says urgent action is needed to develop new antibiotics to deal with bacteria's growing resistance to existing drugs.
The MRSA bacteria strain growing inside this petri dish is a drug-resistant superbug that can cause deadly infections. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

A McMaster antibiotic expert said the "tipping point is now" to develop new antibiotics to deal with bacteria's growing resistance to existing drugs.

"This is a public health problem of global proportions," said Gerry Wright, scientific director of McMaster University’s Institute for Infectious Disease. "In some ways, the window is already closed."

The Ontario Medical Association released a report Wednesday stating bacteria are becoming increasing resistant to antibiotics and urging the Ontario and federal governments to regulate antibiotics used in agriculture.

Wright said the same bacterium that causes disease in animals causes disease in humans, too. So when antibiotics are used for reasons other than curing disease, resistance to them builds and that effect trickles over to humans.

"There’s no separation between church and state," Wright said. "The E. coli in cows is the same E. coli in humans."

Ontario currently does not oversee how farmers use antibiotics for their livestock – to treat illness or often to promote growth – or where they come from. The OMA said the province should ban the use of antibiotics as growth accelerators.

The European Union has already banned antibiotics for this purpose and has partnered with private investors to put more than 200 million euros into research, Wright said.

"The European Union is taking this incredibly seriously," he said. "Even if we stop using antibiotics tomorrow on the farms, we still have this crisis in hospitals."

What Canada needs is massive investment for research and development, he said, and it doesn’t have to come from the government.

But that presents a new problem – convincing pharmaceutical companies there is value in focusing on new antibiotics.

"Drug companies aren’t working on this because they don’t feel it’s a way to make money," Wright said. "Antibiotics cure disease, you don’t take them for a long time. That’s not a good way to encourage an investor."

Wright said regulations in Canada also make it difficult to get a new drug tested. But quite simply, it’s hard to develop a new antibiotic.

At McMaster, Wright said antibiotic research and development and looking to ways to block resistance are both high on the priority list.

The time to act is now, he said, but even so, researchers likely won’t be able to deliver significant results for a while.

"Even if tomorrow I invent a new antibiotic, it takes 10 years of testing," Wright said. "In that 10 years, what do we do?"