We are running out of effective antibiotics fast

We are running out of effective antibiotics fast


JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, we are beginning
a special series on the growing concerns around antibiotics, why there is more resistance
to the drugs from so-called superbugs that can be dangerous and even fatal, and why it
has been difficult to create a newer class of drugs to solve this problem. It is a story that involves the worlds of
science, medicine, business and economics. So, we asked our science and economics correspondents,
Miles O’Brien and Paul Solman, to team up. Their coverage will continue over the next
couple of weeks. We start with Miles’ report. It’s part of our weekly series on the Leading
Edge of science and technology. Every Sunday night, I put up the pills for
a week at a time. MILES O’BRIEN: Thirty times a day. JANE TECCE, Patient: Amlodipine, that’s a
blood pressure medicine. MILES O’BRIEN: Each and every day. JANE TECCE: Prednisone for rejection. MILES O’BRIEN: Jane Tecce takes a pill. JANE TECCE: This is hydralazine. That’s another blood pressure medicine. MILES O’BRIEN: No complaints from her. She’s just grateful to be alive. JANE TECCE: I’m grateful. I wouldn’t have gotten to see my grandkids
being born and, you know, just see life. So you sacrifice things. So that’s how I look at it. It’s a tradeoff. MILES O’BRIEN: In 2011, after years of battling
a rare genetic disease, Jane received the heart and kidney of an 18-year-old man at
Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Her daily pill regimen is designed to stop
her body from rejecting the organs, but it was another drug, an antibiotic, that fueled
an infection that nearly killed her. A month after her transplants, she contracted
pneumonia. JANE TECCE: They put me back in, and I was
very sick. I knew I wasn’t doing well at all, and a lot
of pain. I had pain as if the ribs were affected and
things like that, so they started pumping me through the I.V. with a lot of the antibiotics,
and I think that was the beginning. By February, I had been diagnosed with the
C. Diff. MILES O’BRIEN: C. Diff, clostridium difficile,
is a so-called superbug, meaning a bacteria that is not easily stemmed by antibiotics. In fact, it thrives in people taking the drugs. Each year, superbugs infect more than 2.25
million Americans, killing at least 38,000. WOMAN: The first thing you do is, you put
on your yellow gown. MILES O’BRIEN: At Tufts, doctors who come
in contact with patients infected with superbugs like C. Diff must take great precautions. As the list of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
grows, this has become a much more common routine. So have some extraordinary efforts to prevent
the spread of infection from patient to patient. Here, they bombard rooms with ultraviolet
light, which causes genetic damage to bacteria, rendering them unable to reproduce. Shira Doron is the physician director of the
anti-microbial stewardship program at Tufts. DR. SHIRA DORON, Tufts Medical Center: We are
seeing patients with infections that cannot be treated by any antibiotic on the market. And we’re having to tell patients, we don’t
have anything for you. And so that makes it really scary and really
concerning. MILES O’BRIEN: Antibiotics are organic compounds
that attack and kill bacteria. They are often derived from microbes found
in soil and from mold. That’s where Scottish scientist Alexander
Fleming discovered the first true antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. It, and a host of others developed in the
decades that followed, revolutionized medicine. But it WAS no surprise that these miracle
drugs would eventually lose their potency. In fact, when Dr. Fleming received the Nobel
Prize, he warned of the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself, and by exposing
his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant. Doctors began using penicillin to treat patients
in 1942. Only three years later, they encountered the
first resistant bacteria. Helen Boucher is a professor of medicine in
the division of infectious diseases at Tufts. DR. HELEN BOUCHER, Tufts Medical Center: Resistance
happens naturally. So, bacteria have various mechanisms to survive. MILES O’BRIEN: It is survival of the fittest,
evolution at warp speed. Bacteria adapt very quickly in the face of
the assault. They can learn to strengthen their cell walls
to repel the antibiotics. They can develop pumps to expel them. Or they can make enzymes that destroy them. DR. HELEN BOUCHER: So, they figure out ways to
evade the effect of the antibiotic. And this happens in nature, and it happens
faster in the presence of antibiotics. MILES O’BRIEN: You sort of make it sound like
bacteria are smart. DR. HELEN BOUCHER: They’re very smart. MILES O’BRIEN: And they are adapting very
fast, creating a big public health crisis. KIRTHANA BEAULAC, Tufts Medical Center: Unfortunately,
these bugs mutate faster than we can come up with new drugs. So, the only realistic strategy is to use
the antibiotics that we have better. MILES O’BRIEN: Kirthana Beaulac is the pharmacist
director of the Anti-Microbial Stewardship Program at Tufts. We met in the central pharmacy, where they
store the vast majority of their medications for patients. Here, they see themselves as a last line of
defense. Prescriptions for antibiotics are carefully
scrutinized, particularly the drugs that attack a broad spectrum of bacteria. KIRTHANA BEAULAC: It requires constant evaluation
of the way we do things, and constant reminders, and really a critical assessment of everything
we do every single day to make this — to really make any headway on this battle. MILES O’BRIEN: You sound like you’re at war. KIRTHANA BEAULAC: Kind of. Yes, this is. This is — we call it the arms race. MILES O’BRIEN: In her laboratory, Dr. Boucher
and her team are constantly analyzing cultures of bacteria from patients in the hospital,
always on the lookout for another mutation, another superbug. DR. HELEN BOUCHER: The infection preventionists
come to our meetings every day at 11:30. And they are tuned in to be looking for anything,
any one case that’s new that requires them to go do investigation. And that’s how we prevent anything from becoming
a bigger problem. MILES O’BRIEN: The longer bacteria see an
antibiotic, the more likely they are to develop resistance. It poses a conundrum for doctors as they weigh
the health of an individual patient vs. society as a whole. DR. �MD-BO�SHIRA DORON: I think there has
been a general feeling that it’s better to err on the side of caution, and that caution
equals prescribe. And I am trying to impart the message that
caution might actually be not prescribing. MILES O’BRIEN: The hunt for new drugs to prescribe
is not easy. Scientists say they have already picked the
low-hanging fruit. New microbes that lead to new antibiotics
are no longer easy to find. So, we are running out of antibiotics quickly. My colleague Paul Solman met with a woman
in London who could be the poster child for a post-antibiotic world. Eight years ago, Emily Morris was hospitalized
with a E. coli superbug, the first of eight serious bouts with resistant bacteria. EMILY MORRIS, Battled Resistant Bacteria:
So, I could have had antibiotics when I didn’t need them, and also because I had so many. MILES O’BRIEN: When she was young, she was
prescribed antibiotics frequently because of a hereditary condition that makes her prone
to urinary tract infections. EMILY MORRIS: I was just very lucky, very
lucky that a last-resort antibiotic did work. A lot of the time, it doesn’t work. It kills thousands of people a year. And these superbugs, I have been told, they
are going to kill more than cancer by 2050. MILES O’BRIEN: After we finished shooting,
I sat down with Paul Solman to compare notes. Emily’s story, that’s a tough one. And I think our heart goes out to her, anybody
watching that, thinking this could happen to any one of us. And as I was shooting the story, I was thinking
an awful lot about how close I was getting to these nasty bugs. Were you thinking the same thing? PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, I’m a little hypochondriacal
to begin with. I was now becoming germophobic, washing my
hands all the time. I mean seriously. MILES O’BRIEN: As a good American, I assumed
going into this series that there had to be some kind of silver bullet solution that will
get us out of this. But it’s not as simple as that. The drugs just aren’t there, are they? PAUL SOLMAN: You would think there’s enormous,
essentially insatiable demand for the product, so, obviously, the market is going to provide
it. But it turns out, it’s not anywhere near that
simple. And that’s what the next installment of this
series is about. MILES O’BRIEN: All right, we will go to the
dismal science next time. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I am science correspondent
Miles O’Brien. PAUL SOLMAN: And I’m economics correspondent
Paul Solman.

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