Special Report: When the Drugs Don't Work

Kate Kelland and Ben Hirschler | Reuters | March 31, 2011

Welcome to a world where the drugs don't work...for decades scientists have managed to develop new medicines to stay at least one step ahead of an ever-mutating enemy.
Now, though, we may be running out of road. MRSA alone is estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States -- far more than HIV and AIDS -- and a similar number in Europe. Other drug-resistant superbugs are spreading. Cases of often fatal "extensively drug resistant" tuberculosis have mushroomed over the past few years. A new wave of "super superbugs" with a mutation called NDM 1, which first emerged in India, has now turned up all over the world, from Britain to New Zealand.

NDM 1 is what's growing on the plates that Livermore holds in his gloved hands. "You can't win against evolution," says the scientist, who spends his days tracking the emergence of superbugs in a national reference laboratory at Britain's Health Protection Agency. "All you can seek to do is to stay a jump ahead."

That's not happening now for a number of reasons. For a start, antibiotics are everywhere, giving bacteria countless opportunities to evolve escape routes. The drugs can be picked up, without prescription, for pennies in countries like Thailand, India and parts of Latin America. Even though their use is controlled in the west, the system encourages doctors to shoot the bugs first and ask questions later. Perhaps most worryingly, the world's top drug companies, faced with decreasing returns and ever more expensive and difficult science, have not only slowed their efforts to develop new antibiotics but have been quitting the field in droves...