Sunday, March 04, 2007

Super-bugs and evolution   posted by p-ter @ 3/04/2007 05:20:00 PM

I'm generally skeptical of claims that "Big Pharma" and shadowy government figures are somehow colluding against us, but this story definitely makes me a little uncomfortable:
The government is on track to approve a new antibiotic to treat a pneumonia-like disease in cattle, despite warnings from health groups and a majority of the agency's own expert advisers that the decision will be dangerous for people.

The drug, called cefquinome, belongs to a class of highly potent antibiotics that are among medicine's last defenses against several serious human infections. No drug from that class has been approved in the United States for use in animals.

The American Medical Association and about a dozen other health groups warned the Food and Drug Administration that giving cefquinome to animals would probably speed the emergence of microbes resistant to that important class of antibiotics, as has happened with other drugs.
It's obvious that wide-scale use of a new antibiotic will ramp up the frequency of resistant bacteria; these are basic evolutionary principles at work.

I've speculated in the past that our current relative immunity from bacterial infections could be short-lived and that death from them will return to being a basic part of the human condition (as it has been for most of human existence. Penicillin wasn't produced on an industrial scale until something like 70 years ago). If we play the arms race with bacteria, we're eventually going to lose-- the required investment to get the next big antibiotic will eventually get too high. The one thing we have going for us is that we understand the basics of evolution-- that is, we can predict how a population of bacteria will respond to the next antibiotic, and we have an idea of the population dynamics at work as resistance spreads. I have the feeling that somehow this information could be used to defuse the "arms race" (it can definitely slow it down, as the advisory bodies in this article are well aware), but I'm not sure how...