See Inside July 2009

Squashing Superbugs--The Race for New Antibiotics

Scientists are using new tools and tactics in the race to discover novel antibiotics

Peter and Maria Hoey

“Superbug Strikes in City” sounds like a horror movie title, but instead it is a headline printed in the October 26, 2007, edition of the New York Post. Twelve days earlier a 12-year-old Brooklyn boy, Omar Rivera, died after a wound he received on the basketball court became infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium that has become resistant to one of the most potent drug classes in the current antibiotic arsenal.

The prospect of healthy people contracting an untreatable bacterial infection may have seemed remote a decade ago, but it has now become a reality. In 2007 a research team led by Monina Klevens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that MRSA causes 19,000 deaths every year in the U.S., which is more than HIV/AIDS causes. The number is especially alarming because almost 20 percent of people who contract MRSA die from it, and an increasing number of its victims are young, healthy people who were infected going about everyday activities. The problem was once limited to hospitals or nursing homes, where many people were already vulnerable because of impaired immunity. Even for those who survive, the price of MRSA is high: a patient who contracts it while hospitalized stays an average 10 days longer and costs an additional $30,000.

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