Many of you reading this article would be familiar with the experience of being prescribed an antibiotic when feeling under the weather, and would relate to the simplicity of this exchange - you feel unwell, and are likely told to use antibiotics before anything else. Since Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of antibiotics through penicillin in 1928, the use of antibiotics like mentioned has skyrocketed - and this eventually lead to the rise of ‘superbugs’, which now pose a significant threat to humanity, with the number of deaths caused by them per year rising to 10 million by 2050.

Firstly, a ‘superbug’ is the name for pathogenic bacteria which have developed resistance to multiple antibiotics through mutation and evolution, rendering the antibiotic useless against the bacteria. Once a specific antibiotic is used on a strain of bacteria, although most are killed by it, even if one bacterium becomes resistant to the antibiotic, it can replicate and produce a large population of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a short time. If the same bacteria then is exposed and subsequently becomes resistant to a new antibiotic, it is then known as a ‘multi-drug resistant bacteria’.

Although initially this may not seem to be a major issue, the fact that more bacteria have become resistant to multiple antibiotics means that it is much more difficult for a patient infected with said bacteria to be treated and cured, as fewer antibiotics which can actually destroy the bacteria are available. As well as this, as bacteria are resistant to more antibiotics, some might see the need to produce more antibiotics in order to combat the lack of those able to successfully kill a pathogen, but the cost and time taken to do so is too great to have to repeat every single time a strain of bacteria becomes resistant. The complicated process of drug discovery, regulatory and low ROIs (return of investment), means that there is also a limited financial and practical incentive for the industry.

Antibiotic resistance grows in many ways, the most common of which being that antibiotics are being used much more frequently, even when not entirely necessary - with global antibiotic consumption rates increasing by 46% since 2000. One of the main reasons for this increase is that some antibiotics can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy, which allows for people to use them whenever they feel they need to. This means that bacteria can more easily become resistant to the antibiotic as they are exposed to it more often, increasing the rate of antibiotic resistance. Another reason to be considered is cattle farming, in which antibiotics are used on cattle to protect them and ensure offspring are healthy. The conditions of a farm where animals are so closely packed together provides an optimal breeding ground for bacteria, and the excessive use of antibiotics in farming makes them resistant much quicker.

Despite many challenges, experts have been able to find a way to try and tackle this problem, by using alternative methods to treat bacterial infections. For example, phage therapy is the idea that bacterial infections can be treated by using specific viruses called bacteriophages, which only target bacteria, destroying them through the lytic cycle (where the virus’ injected genetic material divides rapidly and lyses the cell). Phage therapy can be used as an alternative to antibiotics, which would help in reducing the rate of increase in antibiotic resistance. For instance, there have been successful clinical trials of phage therapy against cystic fibrosis infections. 

However, it is still important that we make sure we try to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance, by trying either to reduce infection by washing hands regularly or by reducing the use of antibiotics by only using them when necessary, such as not using them against illnesses like the flu or common cold, as they are caused by viruses, which antibiotics have no effect on.