Ask Dr. Nandi: Scientists identify 'jumping' superbug gene resistant to last-resort antibiotic

Posted at 10:38 PM, May 09, 2019

A new superbug gene has been found to be resistant to one of our last-resort antibiotics. It’s called “MCR 9” and it’s been identified as a jumping gene.

Question: Can you explain more about this?

This is a real concern because antibiotic resistance can lead to superbugs and this can have devastating effects. Now a jumping gene is a piece of bacteria that can move around, from one bacteria cell to another. And this movement means that the bacteria is highly likely to change its strength and ability to fight antibiotics - making antibiotics less effective. So here’s the bad news, research has found this new jumping gene, MCR 9 has shown resistance to our strongest antibiotic, Colistin. Colistin is used as a last resort antibiotic to fight infections that no longer respond to other standard antibiotics.

Question: This sounds quite scary, how does it spread?

Well, the shocking reality is that bacteria are highly mobile. Studies have shown that some bacteria can travel thousands of miles through the air. And if the MCR 9 gene jumps into another cell, it can potentially travel great distances. So worst-case scenario, if this spreads around the world, it could mean a huge number of deaths. And looking at those with the highest risk, folks with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable.

Question: So what can be done?

Antibiotic resistance is already an extremely critical issue around the world. The CDC says that every year in the U.S. antibiotic-resistant bacteria infects roughly 2 million people and around 23,000 people die because of it. These numbers will certainly rise if superbugs increase in numbers. So what can be done? Well, now that MCR 9 is the medical database, health professionals can recognize the gene when standard treatment fails. If it’s found, then the infected person needs to be isolated and special procedures followed to minimize the spread of the infection. On the positive side, this new information can help scientists find new or alternative ways to treat dangerous germs. Also, let this serve as a reminder that we should only use antibiotics when necessary, as well as develop new kinds of antibiotics if we hope to prevent further deaths.