Category: Antibiotic Resistance

Harming our Good Bacteria may be Harming Us in the Long Run

By the time we are 18, we have received 10-20 courses of antibiotics. This antibiotic usage has enabled us to live longer and healthier lives, by overcoming bouts of infections. But there are, of course, drawbacks to this antibiotic consumption. The most obvious and most worrying of these drawbacks, is the development of drug resistant bacteria (superbugs) such as MRSA. However, antibiotics also kill the normal microflora, the ‘good bacteria’ that we need to maintain good overall health. The long term implications of repetitive disruption of our microflora by antibiotics, unfortunately, are not understood and not being adequately investigated.

When in the right concentrations and when the body’s natural immune system is healthy, bacteria are an important part of us. In fact, there are 10 times more bacteria cells in us than there are human cells.5 Human cells and bacteria have developed a symbiotic relationship over time. In order to answer the question of whether harming the good bacteria is harmful to us in the long run, we need to understand more about bacteria.  So how are bacteria beneficial to us?

Firstly, in our stomach, intestines and colon, we have “good” bacteria that play a major role in breaking down our food into nutrients to be absorbed by our body and into waste material that is eventually eliminated.  Along the way, these good bacteria take up colonization sites thereby preventing harmful bacteria, and other pathogens, from taking residence where they do not belong.

Secondly, bacteria can also play a major role in the production of key elements in our body. For example, Bacteroides species of bacteria live in our colon and help us produce Vitamin K, needed for blood clotting. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is another example of the body needing a bacteria to function properly. H. Pylori, while responsible for stomach ulcers in some people when in overabundance, seem to play a major role in the generation of key hormones that control our appetites. H. Pylori appears to affect the regulation of the two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, involved in human energy homeostasis and implicated in the control of food intake such as controlling hunger. Leptin signals to your body it is full while ghrelin stimulates appetite. In one study, it was determined that fewer than 6% of children’s stomachs in the United States, Sweden, and Germany now carry H. Pylori. The lack of Helicobacter pylori has been thought to be linked to the increase in gastroesophageal reflux, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer. Interestingly, those lacking H. pylori are also more likely to develop asthma, hay fever or skin allergies.1 Dr. Martin Blaser, a professor of microbiology at New York University Langone Medical Center, suggests ‘that antibiotics may permanently alter your gut bacteria and interfere with important hunger hormones secreted by your stomach, leading to increased appetite and body mass index (BMI)’.3

Our bodies have been living in balance with our bacteria for thousands of years. It is a symbiotic relationship that is now being permanently altered by the use, overuse and misuse of antibiotics. No one knows at this point how seriously antibiotics are harming our long term health prospects. It will take decades worth of research and the resolve of governmental forces to undertake this large scale investigation. However, for today, it is worth asking the question; “By harming our good bacteria, are we not also harming ourselves in the long run?”

References: 1




Food For Thought: Antibiotic Resistance Generated in Food Production

The expression “food for thought” is often used proverbially more than literally, although results from FDA reports make it necessary to consider how our food and livestock are processed and put serious thought into the food we eat. To make the case immediately apparent, consider that four fifths of all antibiotic consumption in the USA is not human consumption; it’s consumed by farm animals. To quantify this statement, in 2011, 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics were consumed by American people, while 29.9 million pounds went into meat and poultry production.


Antibiotics Sold to Livestock Industry vs. Sold for Human Consumption.

The proportion of antibiotics fed to livestock is not a recent issue, it has been growing and the problems that arise from it have accumulated for over 50 years. An alarming development of bacteria that had grown drug resistant due to antibiotics in the livestock industry is MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) which is a persistent threat to human health. Estimates indicate that MRSA kills 19,000 Americans each year, hospitalizes 370,000, and results in billions of dollars of additional health care spending. The intent of these statistics is not to frighten, but to raise awareness concerning administering millions of pounds of antibiotics annually to artificially boost animal growth. Maryn McKenna wrote a book chronicling the rise and danger of these superbugs (

What is important to note is that a vast majority of the provided antibiotics is not to target infections or better animal health. It is administered at a herd or flock wide basis through the animals water source or feed to promote growth and weight gain, as well as to preventatively help livestock survive harsh farm and living conditions. This is one reason why antibiotics are used, another is for therapy. Therapy is used when farm animals exhibit clinical diseases, and drugs can be an effective way to prevent catastrophic health risks that could be detrimental to the agricultural sector.

Administering antibiotics to animals is not an inherently bad thing to do, although it can become detrimental if done without caution and concern. The FDA’s report on the application of antimicrobial drugs in industry warns that “the development of resistance to this important class of drugs, and the resulting loss of their effectiveness as antimicrobial therapies, poses a serious public health threat”. In this article, the main point is not to suggest entirely eliminating antibiotic consumption in the livestock industry, but to manage it judiciously by targeting specific diseases. Another significant argument is that farmers and food corporations should “voluntarily” withdraw from using drugs which have a functional similarity to drugs used in humans, since this would reduce the concern for transmitting resistive bacteria on to humans through our food. Use of antibiotics for livestock growth promotion has been banned by many European countries, as they have determined that similar investment in more food resulted in the same growth yields without the additional antibiotic resistance generation.

It is evident that we can no longer take how our food is produced for granted. The expression food for thought is no longer some overused metaphor, it is a reality.

Antibiotic Resistance: Are We Winning the Battle, But Losing the War?

Laziness, disillusionment, anger— these are just a few words that come to mind when considering the problem of antibiotic resistance.   From the deliberate misuse of antibiotics in animal feeds, to wide-spread, inappropriate prescriptions for viral infections, the sheer scale of the problem lends itself to feelings of powerlessness and frustration.  For many of us, it’s simply easier to ignore the warning signs and shrug off the future consequences of doing nothing.  Unfortunately, the reality is that people are dying every day—in hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities—from bacteria that were once treated with antibiotic therapy. What were once miracle drugs just a few decades ago—able to eradicate any bacterial infection in the blink of an eye— are now no longer working for a number of infections.  With a lack of good treatment options against resistant strains such as MRSA, enterococci, and c. difficile, frontline health professionals are becoming increasingly alarmed and frightened for future patients.

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Antibiotic Overuse in Livestock: A Slow Motion Catastrophe

Topping some 29-million pounds per year, antibiotics given to livestock have reached record numbers with no hints of slowing down.  With superbugs and antibiotic resistance on the rise, everywhere, the implications for public health are staggering.  Primary used as a growth enhancing agent in factory farming, antibiotics help to offset the risk of disease among livestock living in cramped and squalid conditions.  While increasing profitability for farmers, this practice also streamlines the creation of resistant strains of bacteria—or superbugs—that ultimately infect human beings and threaten our ability to treat bacterial infections as a whole.  At the current rate of resistance, it’s not impossible to conceive of a future where some infections become untreatable and result in death.

In the agricultural world, most major classes of human antibiotics are well represented—that is everything from penicillins, cephalosporins, macrolides, to aminoglycosides are available for animal use.  These drugs, in their human forms, are used to treat the majority of bacterial illnesses—from strep throat to C. difficile infections.  Considering bacteria’s handy-dandy ability to swap resistance factors, it’s hardly surprising that antibiotics are beginning to lose potency among human patients.  As a 2003 Danish study put it, ‘humans and animals share overlapping reservoirs of resistance [to antibiotics]’.  The same study demonstrated the idea that resistant strains could jump from animals fed antibiotics to humans.  The bacterial strain of choice, an enterococci, which was isolated from human beings was able to demonstrate resistance to one of the strongest, last line antibiotics available to medicine: vancomycin.  Interestingly, after the EU banned the offending feed product, levels of resistance in animals, food, and people began to decrease.  Read More

The Consequences of Untreated Bacterial Infections: My Strep Throat Story

In June of 2006, after a long bout of strep throat, and an equally long bout of unsuccessful antibiotic therapy, my life took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.  Rushed to the hospital with complaints of burning pain, numbness, vertigo, and extreme fatigue, I felt for the first time in my life that I might be dying— that I had a brain tumour or something equally horrible.

Shivering, in a make-shift emergency bed throughout most of the night, I underwent several dozen blood tests, neurological exams, and you name it—everything short of investigative surgery.  The hours passed slowly and painfully, while I lay there dumbfounded.   As morning eventually came and my vital signs were pronounced normal—albeit with signs of nerve damage— I was released into my doctor’s care with the recommendation that I see a neurologist and infectious disease doctor as soon as possible.  My search for a diagnosis had begun.

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The Human Microbiome Project: Which Bacteria Live Normally In Your Body

In a recent post, I discussed the release of a new drug to combat C. diff. In that post, an important theme was the fact that several types of germs can live in the bodies of humans without causing harm—until our bodies are no longer able to keep such germs in check. But exactly which types of germs live normally in the human body? Well, thanks to the dedication of many brilliant scientists, the Human Microbiome Project answers that question, as it has mapped out specifically which microbes live in the normal human body.

One of the project’s main areas of exploration was aimed at learning more about why certain microbes harm some individuals, but not others. In order to learn more about the various microbes, scientists analyzed the DNA of the many different types of germs. This endeavor involved over 200 scientists affiliated with nearly 80 different research institutions. Five years and $173 million dollars later, we now know more about the 10,000+ species of microbes that reside within the average human body, and how they all work together.

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The Killers Within – The Deadly Rise of Drug Resistant Bacteria

Every once and a while a book comes into your life and makes an impact on you. Well for me, one such book was “The Killers Within- The Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria” by Michael Shnayerson and Mark Plotkin.  For anyone who is concerned about antibiotic resistance, this is a “must read” book. It is very well researched, fabulously compelling and perfectly frightening.  I was already on the path to create technologies that deal with these deadly bacteria, but after reading this book, I realized that I could not work fast enough.  It convinced me that I needed to work harder and smarter to champion photodisinfection, a new light activated approach to highly resistant pathogens.

There are many great elements about this book which I encourage everyone to read. However today, I wanted to draw attention to, and thank, the small but dedicated number of people across the world who make it their life’s work to monitor and protect us from the rise of the deadly antibiotic resistant bugs. These people deserve recognition and appreciation.  People like Dr. Glenn Morris, Dr. Stuart Levy, Dr. Joshua Lederberg to name only a few of the clinical researchers named in this book, will never become household names in our society…but they should, as they represent true heroes ; every bit the Major Generals in our ongoing battle against the deadly killers within.

Antibiotic Resistance: How A Global Health Problem Develops

The public sphere has been pumped full of information about how unnecessary use of antibiotics contributes to the development of resistant bacterial strains. Just take a look at this news article suggesting that more than 25 million pounds of antibiotics are given to livestock every year. However, what is less often explained is how this works at the molecular level. How does bacteria develop antibiotic resistance?

The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance one of the greatest global health concerns to date.

Before answering that question it is important to understand how bacterial cells work. Bacterial cells look and work differently than say a cell from our body. They have a genetic code (within DNA) but some of that code floats freely within the cell in circular structures called plasmids. One of the particularities of bacterial cells is their ability to pass plasmids amongst each other (plasmid transfer), allowing them to share traits on an extremely rapid scale. Furthermore, one bacterium can divide into two cells without the need for sexual reproduction between two parent cells.

Like us, bacteria survive on chemical based processes, which allow them to grow and replicate. Protein molecules are essential to these processes. They allow for three things:

  • Destroy/change other molecules
  • Form physical structures and barriers
  • Help build new molecules

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The Rise of Antibiotic Resistant Sexually Transmitted Infections

Each year, more than 25 million pounds of antibiotics are consumed annually. The CDC deems at least half of these to be unjustified, leading to a rise in antibiotic resistance across different bacterial species. This rise in resistance is of great concern to global health officials since there are few, if any, new antibiotics being developed. Antimicrobial resistance is increasing among sexually transmitted pathogens1. As with common STIs such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, researchers are currently witnessing an emergence of resistant strains2. Read More

Antibiotic Misuse & Resistance In Animals

In support of Antibiotic Awareness Day last week, Dr Scott McEwan of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph shared a webinar entitled “Antibiotic Use & Resistance in Animals.” During his presentation, Dr. McEwan discussed antibiotic use in animals, the human health impact, and options for intervention. In his webinar, Dr. McEwan pointed out three perceived benefits of antibiotic use in animals: Read More

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