Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, after observing horrific lethal infections on the battlefields of the first World War. It was the first antibiotic to defeat a wide range of terrifying diseases. Today, however, there are frequently shortages of this critical medication. In addition, penicillin and related antibiotics may not kill emerging superbugs.

Less than a century after the discovery of penicillin, many bacteria have evolved into superbugs. As a consequence, antibiotics are no longer effective in killing them. Some microbes have developed resistance to multiple drugs and can no longer be treated with medications. This year alone, drug-resistant infections will probably kill 700,000 people. By 2050, the UN estimates that as many as 10 million people will die annually from infections caused by drug-resistant microbes.

Are the Financial Incentives Misaligned?

Initially, pharmaceutical manufacturers were enthusiastic about developing new antimicrobial products. But over the last several decades, they have become much less interested in doing R&D on products that are taken only for a short term, as successful antibiotics are. Many companies would rather focus on medications that must be taken every day for years, because they get a better return on their investment. Has this contributed to the rise of the superbugs?

The Source of Emerging Superbugs:

Superbugs began to evolve by the mid-1960s. Now, pathogens like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA have become common. Doctors are working on developing a new antimicrobial drug called dalbavansin that should treat emerging superbugs successfully for a least a while.

This Week’s Guest:

Matt McCarthy, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical School and a staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. McCarthy is editor-in-chief of Current Fungal Infection Reports and author of two best-selling books: Odd Man Out and The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly. His latest is Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic, to be published May 21. You can learn more at http://www.drmattmccarthy.com/books/superbugs-hc

His website is http://drmattmccarthy.com/

The photograph of Dr. McCarthy was taken by Nina Subin.

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