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Bacteria R&D is in its DNA

Part way through watching the recent PBS Frontline broadcast “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” I was already deeply worried.

The report focuses on so-called Gram-negative bacteria — a type of bacteria that has developed ways to fend off our strongest antibiotics.

That was scary enough for me.

Then I learned that the bacteria can pass along its single most dangerous property — that resistance — like a friendly guy sharing a spray bottle of Armor All with all his bacterial neighbors.

In short order, all the dirty tires on vehicles of infection up and down Bacteria Street were shiny and new, and the bacterial community glowed with confidence that the antibiotics that once hurt it have been vanquished.

The parallel with Armor All is close, because Gram-negative bacteria have a kind of external coating that fends off antibiotics.

All this is bad news for us, and the broadcast showed how very bad.

1. Even when a National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Md., and its top professional staff went vigilant in its precautions, a Gram-negative bug spread from a single patient around the hospital, eventually killing 14.

2. The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer largely shut down a facility in Groton, Conn., dedicated to developing new antibiotics to fight these bacteria because it concluded what almost every other pharmaceutical firm had: The problem was so complex and demanded so much research, it would be impossible to make money in the venture.

3. Although previously found almost exclusively in hospitals, Gram-negative bacteria are now out in the community. The report seemed to indicate it is more prevalent in countries like India. But the Centers for Disease Control estimate more people die from infections they cause every year in the United States than die of HIV.

Besides, a successful bacteria can book an international flight as easily as a passenger using frequent flyer miles.

But it was a fourth detail that particularly caught my eye and shone a light on the problem’s fundamental driver.

The detail emerged from the story of a young, healthy, active American girl who picked up this resistant kind of bacteria in the midst of living her young, healthy active American life.

After doctors quickly exhausted the arsenal of antibiotics at their disposal to fight her infection, they found themselves with a final choice: using one of the earliest antibiotics developed in the 1940s, one usually avoided because of toxic side-effects.

That struck a chord in me.

About a year ago, I was working on a story about declining effectiveness of Roundup and its generics in protecting Roundup Ready corn and soybeans from weeds that had become Roundup resistant.

As in the antibiotic world, the herbicide world was worried that the pipeline that has produced new modes of fighting the invasive weeds was slowing down, if not drying up.

There was some disagreement over the importance profitability played in the problem. But, clearly, Roundup’s effectiveness, cheapness and profitability had made developing new herbicides far less attractive.

In the end, the alternative was to develop corn and soybeans that that would be tolerant not to Roundup but to an herbicide developed in the 1940s, 2,4-D. Protests came because of undesirable side effects, including drift of the herbicide into neighboring fields, where it could kill crops not bred to resist it.

Like the doctors who reached back into the past to try a more toxic antibiotic, the herbicide developers had reached back into the past.

The reason seems clear: The built-in R&D systems in bacteria and the plants we call weeds are outpacing our own R&D efforts.

Over time, laboring in farmers’ fields, weeds had done what human engineers had done to corn and soybeans: Adapted themselves so they could survive doses of Roundup.

That’s essentially what the Gram-negative bacteria have done. Having been exposed to antibiotics long enough, their natural R&D systems (genetics) engineered changes (mutations) that allow them to live happily in the presence of most antibiotics.

Two more thoughts here.

One: All this is a nothing new to researchers in the field, whose success has put the general public on a “need to know” basis about their challenges. My sense is that this may be the point at which we need to know.

Two: If all this plays out as Frontline indicates, we face a huge and obvious challenge. Because if private enterprise is unable support the R&D needed to address this critical problem, the human enterprise needs to get busy on an alternative.

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