They never released the woman’s name. News articles and government reports that came out in early 2017, months after her death, referred to her as “a Northern Nevada woman,” “a female Washoe County resident,” or something similarly vague.
Her killer, however, they didn’t miss that: Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae.
Parse through those vowels and you’ll dig out the reason for the interest: a drug-resistant strain of bacteria. In this case, it proved to be something particularly tenacious.
Doctors in the United States had 26 approved antibiotics available to treat infections in their patients.
The bacteria that killed the unnamed Nevada woman were resistant to every one of them.
Health officials around the globe are tracking an alarming rise in cases of bacteria that no longer respond to treatments with antibiotics – the go-to remedy for infections since the mid-20th century. Common infections that today we brush aside with a vial of pills are increasingly overwhelming the treatments. And projections on where we’re headed are staggering.
In 2017, an estimated 700,000 people died from drug-resistant bugs. By the year 2050, that number could rise as high as 10 million in what Britain’s top medical officer described as a “post-antibiotic apocalypse.”
An obvious savior from such doom and gloom would be a new class of antibiotics – drugs bacteria have never encountered and have not mutated to resist.
But the pipeline has been nearly empty for years.
Major pharmaceutical manufacturers are far more interested in drugs that consumers take regularly – think antidepressants, erectile dysfunction pills or diabetes medications. The payoff on products patients take continually goes far beyond what a company would make developing and marketing antibiotics that are taken for a week or, at the most, a few months.
Big Pharma has basically given up on antibiotics.
A molecular biologist and former pharmaceutical company official wrote in Forbes last year: “Big Pharma has basically given up on antibiotics. It’s not that the risks are too high; it is that the rewards are too low.”
Engineers, including researchers at the University of Michigan, have stepped into the chasm between what we have and what we need. Work underway in labs across North Campus represents several new fronts in the fight, including killer nanomaterials and antibiotic combinations that mimic the immune system.
But we’re going to start this story elsewhere: with a U-M guy on the bottom of the Red Sea.