The rise of the latest drug resistant superbug – resistant to all known antibiotics
In parts of Europe, some strains of the latest superbug are already resistant to all known antibiotics – but researchers don’t yet know how it is spreading internationally.
When Dr Jean Lee came across a case of an otherwise healthy patient who had become seriously ill from a hospital-acquired infection in 2012, she knew she had to investigate further.
Dr Lee, who was working as an infectious diseases registrar at a Melbourne hospital, became concerned when the patient experienced complications following a relatively simple elective procedure.
“He should have been in and out of hospital quickly,” she says. “But instead he contracted a very resistant infection and had to stay in hospital for over two months, followed by rehab.”
It turned out he had contracted Staphylococcus epidermidis (S. epidermidis), a bacteria found on human skin, and one of the most common causes of hospital associated infections.
It hasn’t previously been considered a major concern, with doctors more worried about other antibiotic-resistant superbugs like its cousin methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – commonly known as golden staph.
But, as Dr Lee discovered, S. epidermidis is becoming resistant to most antibiotics and – perhaps most worrying of all – in parts of Europe some strains are already resistant to all known antibiotics.
“Other bugs are more deadly, and this is a bug we all have on our skin, so I think there’s a perception it’s not quite so bad and that when a patient contracts it we can deal with it,” explains Dr Lee.
“But we’ve discovered resistance has got to the point where some of these cases are almost untreatable.”
After discovering her patient’s infection was caused by S. epidermidis, Dr Lee started a six-year project with her consultant and PhD supervisor, Professor Ben Howden, to understand how widespread its resistance is. Their findings have now been published in Nature Microbiology.
They identified three strains of the bacteria, which have become resistant to the two separate antibiotics currently used to treat infections – rifampicin and vancomycin.