March 11, 2013
In the battle against bacteria, antibiotics have been formidable weapons. We've been using them widely for only 80 years, but in that time they have helped to transform our lives: we now expect our children to survive into adulthood, we expect to live to a ripe old age.
However, antibiotics don't last for ever, and the reason for that is evolution: bacteria evolve resistance. Antibiotics are failing because bacteria develop resistance to the drugs over time. In the decades after the invention of penicillin it did not seem to be a problem because drug companies developed new versions. But no new classes of drugs have been discovered since 1987 and the pipeline has now dried up.
The pharmaceutical industry have given up tackling the issues of antibiotic resistance. The search for new drugs has become hard and, because resistance always develops, their lifespan is not long, so there is not much profit to be made. The drugs companies see greater profits in medicines that treat chronic conditions, such as heart disease, which patients must take for years or even decades.
If we start running out of effective drugs, that leaves us incredibly vulnerable. The result is that while antibiotics are failing, new bacterial diseases are on the rise. There has been an alarming increase in other types of bacteria, especially the so-called "gram negative" bacteria, which are found in the gut instead of on the skin, are highly dangerous to older and frailer people and few antibiotics remain effective against drug-resistant strains.
The medical profession talks of going back to a pre-penicillin era if we're not careful.