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Surprising Science

Beyond Antibiotics: Fighting Superbugs

The E. Coli found in German bean sprouts is the most recent bug to evade normal treatment methods and it won’t be the last, so perhaps the time has come to look past antibiotics.

What’s the Latest Development?

When E. Coli went undetected for weeks in German bean sprouts, it left many scientists scratching their heads because no commonly used method of detection would have prevented the outbreak. “The German strain belongs to a family of E. coli that clings to gut walls, but usually caused such mild disease—until now—that it is largely unstudied. It recently picked up a gene that causes bloody diarrhoea, putting it in a group known as Shiga-toxin E. coli (STEC). The hybrid has proven unprecedentedly lethal.”

What’s the Big Idea?

The German E. Coli breakout confirms what some scientists have been saying for years: “We need to broaden the fight against bacteria to include a better understanding of how they cause disease; the discovery of new classes of antibiotics; strategies to slow the growth of antibiotic resistance; faster diagnosis of infection and better ways to screen food.” Unfortunately, drug companies have largely abandoned the search for next-generation antibiotics, says David Hooper of Harvard Medical School in Boston, because there is little profit in short-term treatments. Public-private partnerships are needed, he says. 


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