Last June, government health officials from around the world gathered in The Hague to discuss a significant problem: the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. At the gathering, dubbed the "Ministerial Conference on Antibiotic Resistance," Dutch Health Minister Edith Schippers laid out the terrible consequences in store for the planet once antibiotics stop working: more people will die from common infections, routine operations will become too dangerous to perform; essentially, millions of lives will be at risk.
Long years of antibiotic misuse and overuse have given rise to superbugs, mutated pathogens that have developed resistance or immunity to most, if not all, of the antibiotics in use today. The most common of these is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a strain of staph bacteria, but it's hardly the only – or even the most serious – of superbugs. In South Africa, patients with a strain of tuberculosis that has developed resistance to all known antibiotics have no medical recourse, and the infection is nearly always fatal.
Apart from the widespread misuse of antibiotics, the medical community also suffers because large pharmaceutical companies generally don't invest much in new antibiotics research. In fact, researchers haven't discovered a single new classes of antibiotics since the 1980, and as of 2013 only four pharmaceutical companies were even looking for new antibiotics. Kevin Outterson, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, offers a simple explanation for this lack of interest.
"They couldn't make any money," Outterson said. "Antibiotics, you know, typically are fairly inexpensive and we're used to not paying much for them. On top of that, every time you bring out a new antibiotic, public health officials and people in hospitals want to limit the number of times it's used. So for most businesses, that's a pretty rough business model."
But with health crises looming, some pharmaceutical researchers are finally turning their attention to the search for antibiotics. Scientists around the world have returned to the source of the antibiotic heavyweights of the last century: the natural world. Some have turned to organisms in the soil, others are looking at geothermal sites in Iceland, but most appear to be investing their time in marine-based habitats.
Recent research has shown that unique microorganisms, which produce equally unique chemical structures, frequently reside in oceans and lakes. To scientists, new molecules offer a clear indication of the possibility of new drugs. For example, in 2004 the United States approved the first sea-based pharmaceutical concoction – a painkiller called Prialt. Then again in 2007, the European Union released a cancer treatment medication that also traces its roots to the ocean floor. Since then, at least six more drugs with marine ties have reached the market, with about another 25 in clinical trials.
New drugs can mean not only the resurgence of antibiotics, but potentially new and better treatments for all types of ailments and conditions. While this is great news, healthcare managers should start preparing themselves for changes preemptively. An influx of new drugs and new treatments means more work for hospital administrative and technical staff, who will have their work cut out for them learning the new billing codes, procedures, and most likely, preparing for more patients. In this case, at least, more work will be good work.
US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health
Government of the Netherlands: Minister Schippers opens conference on antibiotic resistance
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Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education, medicine, healthcare careers, and science. Her interests actually span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist! Check out her Google+ Profile.