By Savannah Keller
When we think about modern pharmaceutical products, we look across the Charles River to the biotech companies that are developing cutting-edge drugs to combat rare clinical diseases. When we think about the burden of bacterial disease, we feel safe that simple antibiotics will keep us protected from such infections. Thus, our fears are averted towards the more complex viruses such as HIV and Malaria; a reasonable mindset due to the higher global death toll attributed to these viruses. But what will happen to us all when the basic antibiotics we so heavily take for granted stop working?
In Maryn McKenna’s Ted Talk titled, What do we do when antibiotics don’t work anymore?, McKenna outlines a terrifying, yet practical reality, in which drug- resistant bacteria threatens the perceived safety of our post–Penicillin era. If McKenna’s predictions are, man kind could be approaching a new age of obsolete antibiotics. These scientific projections suggest that scenarios such as scraping your knee or a simple sinus infection could become life-threatening conditions.
Many men and women who hear about this new idea of drug resistant bacteria push the thought aside because they do not fully comprehend the severity of the threat. They wonder how antibiotics- a simple, safe and very reliable form of treating infections- could ever become ineffective. Well, the only people we have to blame are ourselves. The largest contributing factor to bacterial drug resistance is the overuse of antibiotics, and although this process may be scientific, one does not need to be a genetic physicist to understand how it occurs.
When antibiotics come into contact with bacteria, many of the bacteria will be killed; however, several bacteria will survive. They will then incorporate a small section of the antibiotic’s genetic code into their own genome, thus creating a resistance. Similar to how humans create antibodies that prevent us from contracting the same disease twice, now this bacterial molecule is resistant forever
And because the antibiotic killed all of the other original bactera, when this bacterial strain reproduces, the new generations will be exact copies of the strain resistant to antibiotics. This poses a threat to humans because if we are to contract this strain of a bacterial infection, the current drugs we have will not be able to fight it off.
The next question people may ask are how the bacterial strains are coming into contact with antibiotics in the first place. There are two simple answers to this question. The first answer is that we overuse antibiotics enormously. The second answer is surprising in that it combines two puzzling, yet connected concepts: livestock and soil.
Many Americans are unaware that nearly 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States today are given to livestock prophylactically. Meat producing companies dose their animals with antibiotics to prevent potential infections that would impede their growth. Cows outnumber humans in the United States 5:1 so you can only imagine the quantity of feces that these creatures are dumping back into the soil. The problem is that a huge percent of bacterial species reside in soil and according to a study published by the American Society of Microbiology in 2012, there is a “widespread presence of high level antibiotic-resistant bacteria in agricultural soils.” This soil is then used for more farming and more livestock grazing thus facilitating the rapid process of drug resistance.
The World Health organization offers two solutions to face this problem and both will require very simple, yet very resisted changes. First, the United States must stop over-prescribing and over abusing antibiotics. Secondly, pharmaceutical companies need to focus more research on developing new anti-microbial drugs to fight these enhanced bacterial strains. However, the margin for profit is much smaller in comparison to drugs battling rare and specific cancer treatments, and therefore many drug companies are not willing to.
Unfortunately this will require large, moneymaking corporations (whom are profiting immensely from the over use of these drugs) to make revenue-reducing adjustments to their business models. Similar to the housing market crash of 2008, the economic players foresee a devastating crash, but are not willing to combat the problem. The most terrifying concept of this entire process is that once bacteria have become resistant, the antibiotics we rely on will become obsolete and ultimately useless. McKenna argues that no matter how fancy new pharmaceutical drugs become, the human population will not live long enough to need them if deadly bacterial infections emerge again.
“Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Proliferate in Agricultural Soils.” American Society for Microbiology, 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
McKenna, Maryn. “What Do We Do When Antibiotics Don’t Work Any More?” Ted Talks, Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.
Popowska, M., Maryn Rzeczycka, and A. Miernik. “Influence of Soil Use on Prevalence of Tetracycline, Streptomycin, and Erythromycin Resistance and Associated Resistance Genes.” American Society for Microbiology 56.3 (2012): n. pag. Web.
Race against Time to Develop New Antibiotics.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.