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Program Predicts Antibiotic Resistances, Buying Us More Time

Jan 06, 2015 08:25 PM EST

Researchers have developed a useful tool that could help modern medicine overcome a major problem it is facing - that problem being antibiotic resistance.

It's no secret that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its European counterpart (ECDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have all become exceptionally weary of the increasing ineffectiveness of our major antibiotics.

That's because, as revealed by a mounting number of studies, we are becoming utterly surrounded by bacteria and other microbes that can resist the everyday drugs we use.

The consequence, as put ever-so-calmly by the WHO, is that a "post-antibiotic era - in which common infections and minor injuries can kill - far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century."

But what caused this in the first place? According to the CDC, we did. That's because in developed countries like the United States, it has become common practice to prescribe antibiotics even in cases where they might not be needed. The use of these drugs on livestock has also been found to be at fault, and the consequence is that microbes are given plenty of opportunities to be exposed to antibiotics and adapt.

That's why researchers are now scrambling to find new ways to fight non-viral infections, as more of our current treatment options are being rendered useless.

So far, researchers have actually been giving us some good news, as they are making steady progress. However, how long will it take for the next wave of resistance to kick in? Will humanity have learned its lesson?

That's what researchers at Duke University and the University of Connecticut are currently asking, and they believe that their newly designed computer program can help them find the right answers. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

In a study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these researchers used their program, called OSPREY, to identify the genetic changes that will allow methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to develop resistance to a class of new experimental drugs that show promise against the deadly bug.

MRSA has remained one infectious superbug that has kept health professionals worried, as it currently boasts a stunning 55 percent rate of resistance during treatment. MRSA now kills 11,000 people in the United States every year - more than HIV.

"If we can somehow predict how bacteria might respond to a particular drug ahead of time, we can change the drug, or plan for the next one, or rule out therapies that are unlikely to remain effective for long," Duke researcher Pablo Gainza-Cirauqui, explained in a statement.

"For some antibiotics, the first drug-resistant bacterial strains don't appear for decades after the drug is introduced, and in others all it takes is one year," he added.

Knowing how worrisome bacteria will likely react ahead of time is a valuable resource in determining which drug to prioritize for development and distribution.

Additionally, the researchers had hoped OSPREY would reveal some new mutations that hadn't even been considered, giving experts a means to preemptively prepare.

"We wanted to find out what countermoves the bacteria are likely to employ against novel compounds [still in development]," said study co-author Bruce Donald. "Will they be the same old mutations we've seen before, or might the bacteria do new things instead?"

After lab-ready MRSA was treated with several experimental new drugs, the researchers then genetically sequenced the surviving microbes. Amazingly, the same genetic changes that granted the survivors resistance had also been predicted by OSPREY.

"The fact that we actually found the new predicted mutations in bacteria is very exciting," Donald said.

The researchers are now using their algorithm to predict resistance mutations in other pathogens like E. coli and Enterococcus, hoping to buy us a little more time before the WHO's so-called "post-antibiotic era" arrives.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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