New range of antibiotics may present a threat to public health

June 06, 2003

A remarkable range of antibiotics under development may compromise our natural defences against infection, warns McGill evolutionary biologist Graham Bell. His paper, entitled Arming the Enemy: the evolution of resistance to self-proteins and co-authored by Pierre-Henri Gouyon, was published in the journal Microbiology this week. http://mic.sgmjournals.org/current.shtml#review

The new antibiotics are attracting increasing interest as a major new weapon in the campaign against bacterial infection, even though both experimental evidence and theoretical arguments suggest that this claim is doubtful,according to their paper. "It is claimed that bacteria will be unable to evolve resistance to them because they attack the "Achilles' heel' of bacterial cell-wall structure," explains Dr. Bell. However, if this is true, "the introduction of these substances into general use may provoke the evolution of resistance to our defence proteins."

Because previous reviews have emphasized the potential benefits of such antibiotics without drawing attention to the likelihood that resistance will evolve, or to the possible consequences for human populations if this should happen, Bell wants development of this new category of antibiotics restrained "until the likely response of bacterial opulations is more clearly understood." He argues therefore that "the evolutionary consequences of new clinical treatments involving the health of whole populations, present and future, must be considered in the regulatory process."

Bell insists that if further investigation shows that bacteria will not build resistance to the new antibiotics, then the path would be clear for their introduction into wider circulation as a potentially valuable weapon against infectious disease. On the other hand, mathematical models already indicate that resistance is quite likely to spread, and therefore caution must be exercised until more research is carried out.
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McGill University

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