by_ Ricki Lewis, Ph.D._
When penicillin became widely available during the second world war, it was a medical miracle, rapidly vanquishing the biggest wartime killer--infected wounds. Discovered initially by a French medical student, Ernest Duchesne, in 1896, and then rediscovered by Scottish physician Alexander Fleming in 1928, the product of the soil mold Penicillium crippled many types of disease-causing bacteria. But just four years after drug companies began mass-producing penicillin in 1943, microbes began appearing that could resist it. The first bug to battle penicillin was Staphylococcus aureus. This bacterium is often a harmless passenger in the human body, but it can cause illness, such as pneumonia or toxic shock syndrome, when it overgrows or produces a toxin. In 1967, another type of penicillin-resistant pneumonia, caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae and called pneumococcus, surfaced in a remote village in Papua New Guinea. At about the same time, American military personnel in southeast Asia were acquiring penicillin-resistant gonorrhea from prostitutes. By 1976, when the soldiers had come home, they brought the new strain of gonorrhea with them, and physicians had to find new drugs to treat it. In 1983, a hospital-acquired intestinal infection caused by the bacterium Enterococcus faecium joined the list of bugs that outwit penicillin. Antibiotic resistance spreads fast. Between 1979 and 1987, for example, only 0.02 percent of pneumococcus strains infecting a large number of patients surveyed by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were penicillin-resistant. CDC's survey included 13 hospitals in 12 states. Today, 6.6 percent of pneumococcus strains are resistant, according to a report in the June 15, 1994, Journal of the American Medical Association by Robert F. Breiman, M.D., and colleagues at CDC. The agency also reports that in 1992, 13,300 hospital patients died of bacterial infections that were resistant to antibiotic treatment. Why has this happened?
"There was complacency in the 1980s. The perception was that we had licked the bacterial infection problem. Drug companies weren't working on new agents. They were concentrating on other areas, such as viral infections," says Michael Blum, M.D., medical officer in the Food and Drug Administration's division of anti-infective drug products. "In the meantime, resistance increased to a number of commonly used antibiotics, possibly related to overuse of antibiotics. In the 1990s, we've come to a point for certain infections that we don't have agents available." According to a report in the April 28, 1994, New England Journal of Medicine, researchers have identified bacteria in patient samples that resist all currently available antibiotic drugs. Survival of the Fittest
The increased prevalence of antibiotic resistance is an outcome of evolution. Any population of organisms, bacteria included, naturally includes variants with unusual traits--in this case, the ability to withstand an antibiotic's attack on a microbe. When a person takes an antibiotic, the drug kills the defenseless bacteria, leaving behind--or "selecting," in biological terms--those that can resist it. These renegade bacteria then multiply, increasing their numbers a millionfold in a day, becoming the predominant microorganism. The antibiotic does not technically cause the resistance, but allows it to happen by creating a situation where an already existing variant can flourish. "Whenever antibiotics are used, there is selective pressure for resistance to occur. It builds upon itself. More and more organisms develop resistance to more and more drugs," says Joe Cranston, Ph.D., director of the department of drug policy and standards at the American Medical Association in Chicago. A patient can develop a drug-resistant infection either by contracting a resistant bug to begin with, or by having a resistant...