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. 😉 ]