How to deal with superbugs, a pandemic that causes thousands of deaths

Misusing or abusing antibiotics, both in the healthcare and veterinary fields, is one of the main causes of a pandemic that is as deadly as it is silent: superbacteria.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 May 2024 Wednesday 10:24
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How to deal with superbugs, a pandemic that causes thousands of deaths

Misusing or abusing antibiotics, both in the healthcare and veterinary fields, is one of the main causes of a pandemic that is as deadly as it is silent: superbacteria. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the great capacity of some bacteria to adapt and resist drugs designed to combat them is already one of the greatest threats to global public health. Every year 1.2 million people die in the world from infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics and the future is not very hopeful: in 2050, the number of annual deaths could reach up to 10 million worldwide.

Faced with such a panorama, experts urge us to take measures to address this situation and reverse the dire projections. This is why some countries have begun to reduce the consumption of antibiotics in veterinary environments and rationalize their healthcare use to avoid new superbacteria and try to reverse existing resistance. In fact, there are bacteria that become sensitive again when the antibiotic disappears from the environment for a while, specialists warn. In any case, supporting research is essential to find advances such as those being achieved by the scientists gathered in the next CaixaResearch Debate.

Bacteria resistant to antibiotics are especially worrying in clinical settings since they can affect hospitalized people who have low defenses and turn minor surgeries into a fatal risk, highlights the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). If previously multi-resistant bacteria attacked immunosuppressed patients in hospitals or who were under treatments that reduce their defenses, now they have made the leap to the community, giving rise, for example, to tuberculosis and resistant sexually transmitted infections.

Discovering new antibiotics effective against these microorganisms is a challenge for the pharmaceutical industry: research can last decades without obtaining results, which discourages the investment of resources. Experts propose incorporating economic incentives to boost their interest again. In addition, other avenues of research are being promoted to find new therapeutic tools. Three scientists who are leading projects supported by the ”la Caixa” Foundation and who seek to provide solutions to this situation will explain the challenges they face and what their latest advances are in a new CaixaResearch Debate. This meeting, which will take place on May 22 at 7 p.m., can be followed online through caixaresearch.org after registering in advance.

The speakers will be Daniel López Serrano, principal investigator in the Molecular Biology of Infections group at the National Center for Biotechnology (CNB) in Madrid; Javier Montenegro, principal investigator at the Singular Center for Research in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Materials (CIQUS) and professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, and Mireia López Siles, professor, reader and researcher in the Microbiology of Intestinal Disease group from the University of Girona (UG).

Taking antibiotics when it is not necessary to combat an illness or stopping a course of these medications halfway contributes to creating resistant bacteria. Furthermore, the microbiota—the natural bacterial community of our body that plays an essential role in intestinal and dermatological health, as well as in our immune system, among others—can be altered by the consumption of these drugs. Other factors that influence this health crisis that is growing unstoppably are the absence of new families of antibiotics that reinforce the therapeutic arsenal and the increase in displacement associated with globalization that helps spread resistance throughout the world.

The project led by Daniel López Serrano aims to recover the effectiveness of antibiotics that have stopped working due to the increase in resistant bacteria. In previous studies, his team discovered a cellular process essential for the survival of bacteria during infections and has been able to design treatments that inhibit this process. The great advantage of this approach is that it proposes a treatment capable of curing infections that could not be cured, and it does so by reactivating commercially available antibiotics.

When a new antibiotic is developed, it may happen that, although it has promising bactericidal capacity, it fails to cross the membrane of the bacteria. Current strategies to facilitate this membrane transfer have not been completely effective. The project led by Javier Montenegro uses a new approach based on the property of boron to transport antibiotics into bacteria, in addition to having a lot of potential to enable the use of already existing antibiotics in resistant or limited permeability strains.

Klebsiella pneumoniae is a bacteria that can be found in any environment, such as in our intestinal microbiota, without causing any damage. However, in certain contexts, it can cause potentially fatal infections, being an important cause of pneumonia and septicemia in people of all ages. The WHO has classified this bacteria among the species of critical concern in the health field. The project led by Mireia López Siles seeks to prevent these infections with KlebsiGene, a vaccine developed by the University of Girona and the Carlos III Health Institute.