o The Frog Blog: Irish 'Superbug' Drug Breakthrough

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Irish 'Superbug' Drug Breakthrough

The Spread of C. difficile infection in Europe
Hospital ‘superbugs’, such as MRSA (Methicillin - Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and Clostridium difficile, have become a major problem over the past few years - causing thousands of deaths worldwide. ‘Superbugs’ are types of bacteria which have mutated to become resistant to normal antibiotics. Precise figures on deaths in Ireland are hard to obtain, but about 25,000 people pick up MRSA infections in Irish hospitals each year, and those who do are seven times more likely to die (Irish Times, April 21st 2010). In the UK, between 2004 and 2008, C. difficile was involved in 1 death per 1000, and MRSA in 3 deaths per thousand. Recent data shows that C. difficile is set to overtake MRSA as the major ‘superbug’ killer in our hospitals, and is now the fastest spreading hospital-acquired illness in Europe. The very young, the elderly, the seriously ill and those recovering from major surgery, are particularly at risk.

Reports in today’s RTE 1 radio news and the Irish Independent highlight a breakthrough made by scientists in University College Cork, in discovering a new antibiotic called thuricin, which is effective in treating C. difficile infections. Professor Colin Hill explained how PhD student Mary Rea, decided to target the bacteria which normally live in a healthy human intestine as a possible source of a difficile killing chemical. This is because healthy people, i.e. those who are not being treated with other antibiotics, often have C. difficile in their intestines but do not develop adverse symptoms. The hope was that one of the 'normal' species of intestinal bacteria might be responsible for keeping C. difficile in check somehow. In analysing around 30,000 different species of gut bacteria, just one was indeed found to produce the required antibiotic. The discovery could well take 5 to 10 years to be turned into a commercially available drug.

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