The Current

Rise of superbugs could make chemotherapy impossible

With some predicting we're headed for a future of complete antibiotic resistance — scientists are looking outside the box for solutions.
Scientists are scrambling to finds new ways to tackle the big problem of antibiotic resistance. (CDC/Associated Press)
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The warnings about superbugs are growing increasingly urgent.

It is now estimated that antibiotic resistance is responsible for 700,000 deaths annually, worldwide. By 2050 superbugs are expected to kill more people than cancer each year.

But cancer may become more common according to some medical experts, who say certain routine treatments, like chemotherapy, will become impossible if this track continues.

"Not being able to give chemotherapy or not being able to do joint replacements — well I mean that is possible. I hope that can be avoided with prompt action," said Ewen Harrison, senior lecturer in general surgery at the University of Edinburgh. 

Harrison highlights the grave effects that superbugs are already having on patients. He is the author of a new study that looks at infections that develop after patients undergo surgery, which found that a fifth of those people were resistant to antibiotics.

While conventional thinking is patients should take their full course of antibiotics, Harrison says taking a prescription longer than necessary likely contributes to antibiotic resistance. (CBC)
 

"There are clear signs in the study that the antibiotic resistance … is much more common than had been previously anticipated."

"This is important because [these infections] are sore, and uncomfortable for patients. They delay discharge from hospital, they stop return to work, and for health-care systems they cost a lot of money." 

"An estimate from the U.S. was $30,000 per infection."

Solutions

Scientists are now busy searching for a new generation of antibiotics.

Adrian Smith, an assistant research professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University, is one of the many retreating to nature's roots in the quest to defeat the superbug. He's researching 20 ant species, and believes the tiny creatures can lead to big outcomes.

"What are the groups of a species of ants that might be producing really strong anti-microbials that can help resist the growth of bacteria in their nest? Future research is going to test what compounds they are using and how they're producing them and how we can make use of them in a sort of a bio-medical context."

Lori Burrows, a microbiologist and professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster University, is interested in solutions that address the lack of financial incentive to research new antibiotics.

Any new drug is expensive to pursue, but antibiotics are particularly unappealing because you don't take them often, and of course, people develop resistance.

"At the end of the day they're in it to make money," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"If a company is offered a reward up front to develop a drug — they may be interested."

"We're also pushing for regulatory changes… a faster approval of these drugs and a smoother pathway to getting intellectual property coverage — because that's what will get companies interested."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by Alison Maseman and Amra Pasic.  

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