U.S.-UK alliance targets the world’s deadliest superbugs

MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria strain is seen in a petri dish containing agar jelly for bacterial culture in a microbiological laboratory in Berlin March 1, 2008. MRSA is a drug-resistant "superbug", which can cause deadly infections. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Eleven biotech companies and research teams in Britain and the United States were awarded up to $48 million in funding on Thursday to speed development of new antibiotics powerful enough to take on the world’s deadliest superbugs.

The range of antimicrobial medicines able to kill the growing number of drug-resistant infections is dwindling and health experts warn that within a generation the death toll from such “superbug” infections could reach 10 billion.

Announcing its first funding, a new U.S.-U.K. alliance known as CARB-X, short for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator, said it would invest an initial $24 million in 11 biotech companies pursing various projects to develop antibiotics and diagnostic. Another $24 million will be given in staged payments over three years as projects progress.

Added to private funds from the companies, the CARB-X funding could lead to an investment of more than $75 million in projects that show success, it said in a statement. Britain’s Wellcome Trust global health charity is committing 125 million pounds ($155.5 million) over five years.

Public health specialists have been warning for years that the world is facing an urgent global health threat from antibiotic-resistant superbug bacteria and that the pipeline of novel therapies to treat them is precariously thin.

Drug-resistant infections kill 700,000 people a year worldwide, and the last new antibiotic class to be approved for market was discovered in 1984.

With CARB-X funds, three of the 11 projects are working on potential new classes of antibiotics, while four are exploring new ways of targeting and killing bacteria.

Tim Jinks, head of drug resistant infection at the Wellcome Trust, said antibiotic resistance is already “a huge global health challenge” and is getting worse. “Without effective drugs, doctors cannot treat patients,” he said in a statement.

Kevin Outterson, CARB-X’s executive director and a professor of law at Boston University in the United States, added: “By accelerating promising research, it is our hope that we can speed up the delivery of new effective antibacterials, vaccines, devices and rapid diagnostics to patients who need them.”

(Editing by Alexander Smith)

‘Alarming’ superbugs a risk to people, animals and food, EU warns

electronic microscope of superbug

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Superbug bacteria found in people, animals and food across the European Union pose an “alarming” threat to public and animal health having evolved to resist widely used antibiotics, disease and safety experts warned on Wednesday.

A report on antimicrobial resistance in bacteria by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said some 25,000 people die from such superbugs in the European Union every year.

“Antimicrobial resistance is an alarming threat putting human and animal health in danger,” said Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU’s health and food safety commissioner.

“We have put substantial efforts to stop its rise, but this is not enough. We must be quicker, stronger and act on several fronts.”

Drug resistance is driven by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, which encourages bacteria to evolve to survive and develop new ways of beating the medicines.

Wednesday’s report highlighted that in Salmonella bacteria – which can cause the common and serious food-borne infection Salmonellosis – multi-drug resistance is high across the EU.

Mike Catchpole, the ECDC’s chief scientist, said he was particularly concerned that some common types of Salmonella in humans, such as monophasic Salmonella Typhimurium, are showing extremely high multi-drug resistance.

“Prudent use of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine is extremely important,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to ensure that antibiotics keep working.”

Resistance to carbapenem antibiotics – usually the last remaining treatment option for patients infected with multi-drug resistant superbugs – was detected for the first time in animals and food, albeit at low levels, as part of EU-wide annual monitoring for the report.

It said very low levels of resistance were observed in E. coli bacteria found in pigs and in meat from pigs.

Resistance to colistin, another last-resort human antibiotic – was also found at very low levels in Salmonella and E. coli in pigs and cattle, the report said.

Marta Hugas, head of EFSA’s biological hazards and contaminants unit, noted geographic variations across the European Union, with countries in northern and western Europe generally having lower resistance levels than those in southern and eastern Europe and said this was most likely due to differences in the level of use and overuse of the medicines.

“In countries where actions have been taken to reduce, replace and re-think the use of antimicrobials in animals show lower levels of antimicrobial resistance and decreasing trends,” she said.

(This story is a refile to remove extraneous word in first paragraph)

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Spiders, snakes and scorpions join fight against superbugs

By Matthew Stock

(Reuters) – A British lab is searching for new medicines in the poisonous secretions of some of the world’s deadliest creatures, addressing the increasingly desperate challenge of finding viable new drugs.

Over-prescription and over-use in farming of antibiotics has given rise to so-called ‘superbugs’, multi-drug resistant infections that can evade even the medicines designed to kill them. Experts have warned since the 1990s that lethal super-bugs were on the horizon, but few drug makers have attempted to develop drugs against them.

Venomtech, based in south-east England, believe help could be found in the unlikeliest of sources; the venom of spiders, scorpions and snakes that is often fatal to humans. Millions of years of evolution has given these creature’s venom the ability to target and attack their prey while avoiding the body’s defenses. Venomtech scientists hope that an injected drug could perform the same function.

When broken down at the molecular level a tiny droplet of venom contains hundreds of individual components that could eventually be made into new drugs, explained Venomtech founder Steven Trim.

“The principle of Venomtech is separating venoms out into their component parts and targeting them to the right disease area,” Trim told Reuters.

He added that his drug discovery team was “putting the right venom for the right drug target so we maximize the hits – and a hit is an interesting peptide that might make it to a drug.”

Around 400 animals are kept at his lab in Kent, including about 70 species of tarantula and 30 species of scorpion. Many of these kill their prey with venoms that contain hundreds of protein molecules, some of which block nerve activity. Venomtech keep a number of invertebrates which can be deadly to humans, namely the black widow spider and deathstalker scorpion.

Trim, who worked for pharmaceutical company Pfizer before founding Venomtech, stressed that the venom extraction process causes no discernible harm to the creatures.

“We anesthetize the invertebrates, just to temporarily put them to sleep, it makes it safer for us because if they’re immobile they can’t bite us. But also it’s better for the animals as well. And using a very tiny electrical stimulation, just to contract the muscle and squeeze the gland we get a small amount of venom produced,” he said.

The venom extracted from each creature can be measured in micro-liters; a thousandth of a milliliter. Nevertheless, this tiny volume holds hundreds of useful molecules.

“The average scorpion will only produce 2 or 3 micro-liters. So it’s a really small amount. But in that small amount there’s a lot of interesting peptides; several hundred different components and several micro-grams of protein in there, so there’s plenty for us to work with,” Trim said. “We separate that out in a two phase process called high pressure liquid chromatography. And that gives us typically about a hundred fractions per venom, and each one of those fractions may contain 1 to 5 individual peptides. And it’s those individual peptides and proteins that are the real interesting things; these are the molecules that convey the biological activity of the venom.”

Working with scientists from nearby Canterbury Christ Church University, they’ve been screening their venom-derived ‘chemical library’ against different diseases.

Trim said they’ve had some extremely encouraging results.

“Some of them we found can kill bacteria, bacteria like E.Coli and Staphylococcus, so very relevant at the moment where modern medicines are failing. And we’re also finding venoms that are modifying and killing cancer cells,” he said, adding that Venomtech is now working with pharmaceutical companies to turn their venom discoveries into the next generation of drugs.

U.S. sees first case of bacteria resistant to all antibiotics

The mcr-1 plasmid-borne colistin resistance gene has been found primarily in Escherichia coli, pictured.

By Ransdell Pierson and Bill Berkrot

(Reuters) – U.S. health officials on Thursday reported the first case in the country of a patient with an infection resistant to all known antibiotics, and expressed grave concern that the superbug could pose serious danger for routine infections if it spreads.

“We risk being in a post-antibiotic world,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referring to the urinary tract infection of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman who had not travelled within the prior five months.

Frieden, speaking at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C., said the infection was not controlled even by colistin, an antibiotic that is reserved for use against “nightmare bacteria.”

The infection was reported Thursday in a study appearing in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. It said the superbug itself had first been infected with a tiny piece of DNA called a plasmid, which passed along a gene called mcr-1 that confers resistance to colistin.

“(This) heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria,” said the study, which was conducted by the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report of mcr-1 in the USA.”

The patient visited a clinic on April 26 with symptoms of a urinary tract infection, according to the study, which did not describe her current condition. Authors of the study could not immediately be reached for comment.

The study said continued surveillance to determine the true frequency of the gene in the United States is critical.

“It is dangerous and we would assume it can be spread quickly, even in a hospital environment if it is not well contained,” said Dr. Gail Cassell, a microbiologist and senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School.

But she said the potential speed of its spread will not be known until more is learned about how the Pennsylvania patient was infected, and how present the colistin-resistant superbug is in the United States and globally.


In the United States, antibiotic resistance has been blamed for at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually.

The mcr-1 gene was found last year in people and pigs in China, raising alarm.

The potential for the superbug to spread from animals to people is a major concern, Cassell said.

For now, Cassell said people can best protect themselves from it and from other bacteria resistant to antibiotics by thoroughly washing their hands, washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly and preparing foods appropriately.

Experts have warned since the 1990s that especially bad superbugs could be on the horizon, but few drugmakers have attempted to develop drugs against them.

Frieden said the need for new antibiotics is one of the more urgent health problems, as bugs become more and more resistant to current treatments. “The more we look at drug resistance, the more concerned we are,” Frieden added. “The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients. It is the end of the road for antibiotics unless we act urgently.”

Overprescribing of antibiotics by physicians and in hospitals and their extensive use in food livestock have contributed to the crisis. More than half of all hospitalized patients will get an antibiotic at some point during their stay. But studies have shown that 30 percent to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are unnecessary or incorrect, contributing to antibiotic resistance.

Many drugmakers have been reluctant to spend the money needed to develop new antibiotics, preferring to use their resources on medicines for cancer and rare diseases that command very high prices and lead to much larger profits.

In January, dozens of drugmakers and diagnostic companies, including Pfizer, Merck Co MRK, Johnson & Johnson,JNJ; and GlaxoSmith, signed a declaration calling for new incentives from governments to support investment in development of medicines to fight drug-resistant superbugs.

(Reporting by Ransdell Pierson; Additional reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Bernard Orr)

New “Superbug” Gene Found in People and Pigs in China Makes Bacteria Antibiotic-Resistant

Scientists in China have made the “alarming” discovery that another line of defense against infection may have been breached.  In research studies led by Hua Liu from the South China Agricultural University, they have identified infectious bacteria that may be resistant to antibiotics.

The University published their work in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal finding the gene called mcr-1, on plasmids – mobile DNA that can be easily copied and transferred between different bacteria.

According to several news reports, these untreatable superbugs originated in animals before spreading to humans and are highly resistant to antibiotics known as polymyxins, our last line of defense against disease when all else fails.

They include E.coli, the pneumonia bug Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa which can trigger serious lung, blood, and surgical infections.

Professor Nigel Brown, president of Britain’s Microbiology Society, said: “This discovery that resistance to polymyxins can be transferred between bacteria is alarming.

“Now that it has been demonstrated that resistance can be transferred between bacteria and across bacterial species, another line of defense against infection is in danger of being breached.

“We need careful surveillance to track the potential global spread of this resistance, and investment in research to discover new drugs with different modes of action.”

According to  Reuters, researchers warned that these findings suggest “the progression from extensive drug resistance to pandrug resistance is inevitable.”

“(And) although currently confined to China, mcr-1 is likely to emulate other resistance genes … and spread worldwide.”

Some Antibiotics to Blame for Turning MRSA into a “Superbug”

According to a recent study published in Cell Host & Microbe, the first antibiotics used to usually treat MRSA could actually make the skin infection worse by triggering the body’s pathogen defense system.

The bacterium Staphylococcus aureus – also known as a “staph infection” – is carried on the skin or in the nose of most healthy people. Nature World Report states that 25% of the population is colonized with staph, but only 1% of the population is colonized with MRSA. MRSA is a form of Staphylococcus aureus, but it is resistant to methicillin along with other medicines.

“Individuals infected with MRSA who receive a beta-lactam antibiotic–one of the most common types of antibiotics–could end up being sicker than if they received no treatment at all,” George Liu of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and co-senior study author said in a press release.

“Our findings underscore the urgent need to improve awareness of MRSA and rapidly diagnose these infections to avoid prescribing antibiotics that could put patients’ lives at risk,” he added.

Tech Times reports that the study showed that MRSA not only responds to beta-lactam antibiotics, but it will also adapt to them, which makes the disease stronger. The antibiotics weaken the bacteria’s enzymes that produces cell walls. However, the study found that some antibiotics were less effective, allowing the bacteria to rebuild a weaker cell wall. When this happens, the body’s immune system goes into overdrive, trying to destroy the weak cell wall, according to the Huffington Post.

“In situations where there is a lot of infection, this highly aggressive response can cause extensive inflammation and tissue damage, effectively making the consequences of the infection worse,” Liu said.

The challenge for physicians lies in prescribing the right antibiotics for people who have staph infections, or worse, MRSA. It can take a few days to determine if a specific antibiotic is going to make the infection worse.

And while the study did find these disturbing results, the researchers only performed these tests on rats. They say that they will need to conduct trials on humans before they can nail down the correct antibiotics to use in the treatment of staph and MRSA.

Scarlet Fever Making a Comeback and May Now Resist Antibiotics

After nearly 100 years, the bacterial infection, scarlet fever, has made a comeback in Britain and in parts of Asia. And to make matters worse, it may no longer be an easy treatable infection as new research suggests that the infection is showing signs of antibiotic resistance.

“We have not yet had an outbreak in Australia, but over the past five years there have been more than 5,000 cases in Hong Kong (a 10-fold increase) and more than 100,000 cases in China,” said Mark Walker, one of the researchers, in a news release. “And an outbreak in the UK has resulted in 12,000 cases since last year.

The Washington Post reports that scarlet fever is caused by a group of A Streptococcus bacteria that can turn strep throat into scarlet fever. Most people who are affected are children between the ages of 5 and 12. The disease develops a red, sandpaper-like rash on the person’s body, and while it’s unpleasant, it can easily be treated with antibiotics. There is currently no vaccine.

“We now have a situation which may change the nature of the disease and make it resistant to broad-spectrum treatments normally prescribed for respiratory tract infections, such as scarlet fever,” said Nouri Ben Zakour, one of the researchers.

The idea that this new outbreak of scarlet fever could easily be treated was rethought when researches from the University of Queensland discovered that the new scarlet fever cases were resisting antibiotics. While penicillin is still effective, other treatments such as tetracycline, clindamycin, and erythromycin may not be, which poses an immediate threat to people who are allergic to penicillin.

The rise in scarlet fever could pre-empt a future rise in rheumatic heart disease, which causes permanent heart damage. Knowing this, researchers hope to continue studying the patterns of the disease and the effects it has on a person’s health, according to Science World Report.

PharmaSea Project Seeks New Bacteria In Arctic Ocean

A European Union funded project is seeking to find new antibiotics using previously unknown bacteria from the ocean floor.

The project has ships in the Lyngen Fjord of northern Norway collecting soil and animals from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean hoping to find new bacteria that could be used for a new generation of antibiotics.

“If no one finds new antibiotics for common infections, what will happen is we will go back to the pre-antibiotic age in which a simple cut could turn into an infection that becomes deadly,” Marcel Jaspars told CNN.

Major drug manufacturers are not creating new antibiotics despite the rise of anti-biotic resistant bacteria because of the prohibitive costs for bringing a new drug to the marketplace.   Jaspars says that while bacteria have developed resistance to the antibiotics of the last 30 years, they can’t defend against something they’ve never seen.

“In the past, bacteria and fungi have been the main sources for new antibiotics,” Jaspars explained. “In fact, about 70% of our antibiotics still come from nature, normally from sediment samples and soil samples from land. But now, by looking at the ocean, we hope to find new life forms which give us new chemistry that might be able to treat bacterial infections.”

Researchers say that several of the new bacteria discovered on the ocean floor have shown promise for creating new antibiotics.