'Golden age' of antibiotics 'set to end'

Lab research into new antibiotics Far fewer pharmaceutical companies are working on new antibiotics than in the past

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We cannot say we weren't warned. The growing threat of antibiotic resistant organisms is once again in the spotlight.

Prof Jeremy Farrar, the new head of Britain's biggest medical research charity the Wellcome Trust said it was a "truly global issue".

In his first major interview since taking up his post, Prof Farrar told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the golden age of antibiotics could come to an end unless action is taken.

His comments echo those of England's Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies.

Last year she described the growing resistance to antibiotics as a "ticking time bomb", and said the danger should be ranked alongside terrorism on a list of threats to the nation.

Previous chief medical officers have also warned about the threat from pathogens - bacteria, viruses and parasites.

And G8 science ministers in London discussed the danger from drug resistant infectious agents when they met in June 2013.

'Older than humanity'

But the warnings actually started many years ago.

In 1998 a House of Lords report gave this stark assessment: "Antibiotic resistance threatens mankind with the prospect of a return to the pre-antibiotic era."

Most of us were born into a world containing antibiotics, so it is easy to feel they are permanent fixtures in the arsenal of medicines.

In fact penicillin did not go into widespread use until the 1950s.

You can visit Sir Alexander Fleming's tiny laboratory at St Mary's hospital in London where he made the discovery in 1928.

But whereas antibiotics have been around for less than a century, infectious agents are older than humanity, and are continually evolving.

Two bacterial infections illustrate the problem.

Multi-drug resistant (MDR) tuberculosis is rising steadily worldwide.

TB- X-ray The incidence of different forms of drug resistant TB is on the rise

Doctors in London have reported a sharp rise in cases of MDR TB, which can take two years to treat successfully.

That is bad enough, but there are now strains which are even worse.

Five years ago, I reported from South Africa on the growing threat of Extremely Drug Resistant (XDR) TB, which, as the name sounds, is virtually untreatable.

Again this illustrates that these public health threats don't spring up overnight; the warning signs emerge over a long period.

Another example is the rise in infections from enterobacteriaceae - bugs that live in the gut like E.coli and Klebsiella.

They are now the commonest cause of hospital acquired infection and some are becoming resistant to carbapenems, a powerful, last resort group of antibiotics.

There has also been an alarming increase in rates of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhoea, which is becoming more difficult to treat.

Prof Farrar said we could have used our antibiotics better and we should have invested more in research on infectious diseases.

He said there are just four pharmaceutical companies working on antibiotics now compared to 18 companies 20 years ago.

And Prof Farrar called for industry to be given incentives to work on antibiotics and greater restrictions placed on access to these medicines.

The World Health Assembly of the WHO will discuss the issue in May.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    A pox on you all....

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    It is inevitable that some of the organisms will evolve by natural selection and survive the current drugs. We continue to find new ones which combats this to some extent. For some periods we will be ahead, for some losing ground. Maybe eventually a new type of drug will be found but it too will have a limited Long term effect

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Unfortunately we hve too many 'ambulance chasing' lawyers who by their great knowledge of medicine are able to jump down the throats and wallets of anyone who has not prescribed antibiosis for a simple nick with a razor or a moggy with a head cold.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Regulate the use of ABs in the food industry - it’s use is too wide spread.

    Force all drug companies to publish all information on drug trials, toxicity, after affects, and long term exposure problems etc.

    Break up the huge monopolies formed by multinational pharmaceutical companies. Keep the number of companies high, allow reasonably large companies & more & better research will result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    130. Amie
    Maybe to slow the amount of antibiotics down, would it be such a bad idea for the responsibility of prescribing antibiotics to be taken away from GPs and used only by hospital consultants for seriously ill inpatients only?
    It would be insanity. People who's pneumonia could be cured at home with pennies worth of antibiotics would instead need £1000s of NHS care in hospital.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    #129 and some of us survived long enough to breed the next generation but lives were short brutal and usually ended by preventable diseases pennies worth on antibiotics would cure. I would have died of pneumonia aged 11 without penicillin.

    Which infections were created by man? Rabies, Y.pestis, Spanish flu or Smallpox are all arguably 'the worst' by different criteria & all are natural.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Re 105's scpre.

    I hope the people who don't like reading the facts about patient notes and the sclerotic hospital information systems never have to go to any UK hospital (public or private).

    I have collected many histories that show the system of ineffective information systems is widespread.

    My only advice to these -ve scorers of the facts - don't trust to luck - you will not survive!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    If we don't think it worth incentivising drug companies to produce antibiotics we've clearly forgotten the magnitude of the threat infectious bacteria bring. Even today TB is second only to HIV as a killer with 1.3 million dying in 2012. Less than 100 years ago we thought it normal to be horrifically disfigured by syphilis.

    I'd like to avoid that thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Yes, a well managed and well meaning pharmaceutical industry can play vital role in researching for future and investment must be made to research on finding solution at FRONT end in prevention and not at the last end of curing only.With increasing old age population and survival of long term conditions we are bound to see more infections as vulnerable population increases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Big Pharma should be encouraged/incentivised to put more effort into researching phage therapies as an alternative to antibiotics. Let us hope that in May, the WHO will make the same reccommendations. Bacteria also develop resistance to phages, but it is MUCH easier to develop a new phage than a new antibiotic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Maybe to slow the amount of antibiotics down, would it be such a bad idea for the responsibility of prescribing antibiotics to be taken away from GPs and used only by hospital consultants for seriously ill inpatients only? That said, I suppose, then we would be back to the limited amount of hospital beds again. What else can we do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Let's not forget human lived on earth for 250,000 years without antibiotics, or for that matter without any pharmaceutical company products.The most threatening of all infections were created by man, ,there in lies the problem. Making more antibiotics isn't a solution, improper use will by design create more bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    AB resistance comes primarily from animal husbandry overuse, where the drugs are used not to improve health, but to increase weight gain.
    AB abuse destroys natural gut flora, allowing emergence of candidal overgrowths and bacterial neurotoxins.
    Oregano oil is a natural and powerful antimicrobial to which there is no resistance
    At 1:1000, MRSA cannot survive.
    Silver is also effective vs pathogens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Having just finished a pharmacology degree I can understand why big pharma isn't looking for new antibiotics. The return on any investment is poor and more importantly, a huge percentage of leads die out before a single iota of difference to a patient. There is no big-name charity (on the scale of CRUK/BHF) for antibiotics to help out either. I'm worried, and frankly we should all be...

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I doubt there are market forces that'd drive a firm to spend dosh finding a cure that could be used to eradicate a disease and thus the market for that cure. OTOH, developing drugs that relieve the symptoms of a disease is okay, your customers stick with you till death. Actually, until they find a better drug or someone finds a cure. But who'd do the latter - other than the ill?

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Infectious diseases kill more people worldwide than cancer.
    Perhaps now, that we are confronted with the threat of microbial diseases for which no antibiotic treatment is available, it is time to allocate more research funds to microbiology. Cancer research is important but cancer has never been a threat to survival of humankind. Infectious diseases are. The funding balance needs readressing

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    35 years ago I worked in the Middle East where all drugs, including antibiotics, were freely available over the counter to anyone that could pay for them without any advice as to their use or misuse; so nothing new in this story, but it is worth retelling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Until quite recently there was no money in developing new antibiotics because existing ones were working perfectly well.

    Profit-oriented companies cannot be expected to develop drugs for which there is no market, which is why the state needs to sponsor drug research in universities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Drugs research is expensive it costs over £1Bn to get a drug to market. Then it has to pay for the drugs that fail or don't get approved before the 20 year patent runs out. it has to be patented at early stages of development so if drug companies are lucky they get 10 years.

    What winds me up is the rabid left go on about greedy organisations

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    my old doctor used to gives me Antibiotic for my cold and flu now these new doctors don't they say it will not work well it has for me . so when I get an cold it takes weeks for me to get any better but still got a little of it until warm weather get in so if I could buy Antibiotic I would


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