Doom du jour: the drugs don’t work

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2010

The increase in human longevity is due, in at least a significant part, to the invention of the antibiotic. But the age of the antibiotic may nearly be over, as we become victims of their success:

Last September, Walsh published details of a gene he had discovered, called NDM 1, which passes easily between types of bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems. Yesterday’s paper revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.

“In many ways, this is it,” Walsh tells me. “This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with.”

And this is the optimistic view – based on the assumption that drug companies can and will get moving on discovering new antibiotics to throw at the bacterial enemy.

It’s not just infectious diseases that will become a big problem again, either; without effective antibiotics, you can effectively rule out organ transplantation, and a whole raft of other stuff. Will that ten-year window be wide enough for us to develop some sort of blood-cleaning nanotech?

Speaking of drugs, those wacky chappies at the Pentagon are looking for new ways to stockpile vaccines against the possibility of global pandemics, and one plan that caught their eye was from a Canadian firm with the idea of gene-modding tobacco plants to produce a flu vaccine. I always thought “Canadian tobacco” was euphemistic street slang… y’know, “hey dude, where can I score some Canadian tobacco?*”

[ * Apologies to my Canuck readership for this woeful stereotype. If it makes any difference, I only rib you lot because you’re less easily offended than your brethren to the south. 😉 ]

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4 Responses to “Doom du jour: the drugs don’t work”

  1. Sterling Camden says:

    WHO SAYS WE’RE EASILY OFFENDED!?!?!?!

    Re: antibiotics — we should have seen this coming, starting with Fleming. Why did we assume that the process of natural selection would be completely ineffective in species that have a high mutation rate and go through about 4,000 generations in a year?

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    Paul, it would be really nice there were an obvious way to subscribe to comments on a post here.

  3. Babylon says:

    I know that there has been work done on using viruses against bacteria. I haven’t heard anything promising in that direction for a while though.

  4. Stephen J. says:

    Without disagreeing that this sounds like a very serious issue, I honestly think that betting against human innovation and problem-solving ability — at least when it comes to physical or technological solutions — is seldom a good idea. For all we know, in ten years organ transplant rejection may simply be a non-issue because by then we’ll have figured out how to force-clone organs from our own personal stem cells.

    The very title of the article betrays this: “Doom du jour”. We have seen falling-sky scares before that came to nothing, because human innovation did not stay static; Paul Ehrlich famously predicted mass famines worldwide in the 1970s, a prediction thwarted by agricultural innovations. (Most famines today are due to political mismanagement and corruption in distribution networks, not fundamental shortages.) If the genes are known and their makeup is known, we have a target to attack; with ten years to work with, I will be very surprised if something can’t be developed to at least hold us at a workable line. Remember, our solutions and techniques evolve too; and remember that the moment the market has a need for it, R&D seeking it will become economically viable again.