Stopping Bugs that Smash Antibiotics

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Many common infections that were once a scourge, such as typhoid and cholera, have been almost forgotten in Europe.  This is largely because of improved water supply and sanitation but also because we have had safe antibiotic treatments that work to treat serious infections for the last 50 years.

A lot of this progress is at risk now because bacteria that can resist antibiotic treatment are becoming more common, according to Martin Cormican, Professor of Bacteriology at NUI Galway’s School of Medicine.

Friday, 18 November, is European Antibiotic Awareness Day. It is a reminder of how much the discovery of antibiotics has helped us all to live longer and healthier lives, but also of how much is at stake if we do not act to save antibiotics. 

According to Professor Cormican: “As bacteria become resistant to all the older antibiotics, we know that drug companies are finding very few new antibiotics. If we do not have antibiotics that work, certain types of surgery and cancer treatments will become almost impossible do safely because the risk of infection in patients will be too great.”


NUI Galway scientists and doctors in the School of Medicine are working with others in Ireland and Europe to track the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in Ireland and on finding better ways to cut down on overuse of antibiotics.

“Our work at NUI Galway shows that bacteria can change their genes and even swap genes with other bacteria very quickly. Some genes can give bacteria the power to smash the antibiotics into pieces before they have a chance to work. The more often we use antibiotics, the better the chance that a bacteria with a gene that breaks down the antibiotic will develop and spread.

Every time drug companies manufacture a new antibiotic we see the same thing happen within months or years. Right now we are working with people around the country to track the latest big antibiotic-resistant problem which is called CPE. These CPE bacteria have now been found in seven different labs in Ireland – there are many different kinds of CPE and many of these bacteria are resistant to almost all of the antibiotics that we have to treat infection.”

For Professor Cormican, there are some very simple things that can be done to slow down the advance of resistant bacteria. “We need to use less antibiotics, and we can do this safely if we all stop using antibiotics when there is no need for them. Antibiotics are prescribed by a doctor and so part of our research with the Discipline of General Practice and funded by the Health Research Board is to look at ways to help doctors use antibiotics in better ways.”

He also points out that many people still think that they should get antibiotics from the doctors for colds, coughs and sore throats and other minor infections. Many minor infections do not need antibiotics and many are caused by a virus and antibiotics do not help even a little bit for infection with virus. However, it is also important to know that taking antibiotics you don’t need, will kill your good bacteria and can cause diarrhoea and thrush. “So keep your good bacteria safe by taking antibiotics only when you really need them,” says Professor Cormican.

The Environmental Protection Agency has also supported the work at NUI Galway, which found that some antibiotics and antibiotic resistant bacteria escape from places including hospitals into the environment. “We do not know yet how much this adds to our problems but there is reason to believe it could make things worse”, explains Professor Cormican. “We also need to be careful if we have left-over antibiotics. Do not pour them down the sink or the toilet, do not put them in the bin as they might eventually get back into rivers, lakes and drinking water. We can only dispose of them safely by taking them back to the pharmacy.”

Professor Cormican concluded: “If we all work together on this we can help to keep antibiotics that work for our children and grandchildren.”



Author: Marketing and Communications Office, NUI Galway
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