By Ross Walker

The most common cause of death around the globe is cardiovascular disease, closely followed by cancer. In developed countries, coming in at number three is Western health care.

There are over 100,000 deaths per year in the US alone from the appropriate prescription of medications, with two-thirds of those deaths from blood thinning treatments and diabetic therapy. A further 23,000 deaths in the US every year are from super bugs.

It’s estimated that by the year 2050, there will be around 10 million deaths per year globally from super bugs alone.

So, what is a super bug?

Super bugs are bacteria that have developed resistance to the vast majority of commonly prescribed antibiotics. Well described examples are MRSA, the so-called golden staph, vancomycin-resistant enterococcus, carbapenem resistant klebsiella pneumoniae, and clostridium difficile - to name a few of the better-known offenders.

The most disturbing recent example came from Pennsylvania, when a 49-year-old female presented to a military treatment centre with a urinary tract infection and was found to have a colistin resistant E. coli. This is very bad, because it means there’s no possible treatment.

Finding a treatment

Over the past 30 years, there have only been a handful of new antibiotics developed and the super bugs are fending them off with little effort.

There are desperate efforts all over the world to find better treatments. The Russians have been using and developing bacteriophages which are virus-like structures, and when introduced into a bacteria in certain cases, may be effective at killing that particular organism.

The brilliant Australian researcher, working at Cedars-Sinai University in Los Angeles, Dr Pierre Kyme, has been working on a novel approach using a version of vitamin B3, nicotinamide.

In preliminary work, this has been shown to activate a specific gene CE BPE which regulates several antimicrobial factors in the body through enhancing white cells' ability to combat staph infections. When studied in human blood, clinical doses of the vitamin appeared to virtually wipe out the staph infection in a few hours.

Recent work from the University of Melbourne has developed a particular peptide polymer molecule that appears to rip apart the cell walls of bacteria. The bacteria (at this stage in the research) do not appear to develop resistance to this treatment. This is very preliminary work and has not, as yet, been tested in humans. But any possible breakthrough is welcome in an area where it’s likely that at some stage over the next 10-20 years, humanity will be faced with the very real prospect of a return to the ravaging infections of the pre-antibiotic era, only this time, it will be the super bugs dominating the scene in the post-antibiotic era.

In the meantime, my strong advice to everyone is to minimise your intake of antibiotics and see this form of treatment as a last resort. To reiterate a point most of us have heard on multiple occasions, antibiotics not only do not work for common respiratory tract infections and influenza, they actually make you sick by wiping out your normal, healthy gut bacteria and the bacteria that lines your upper respiratory tract. These are important components of the immune fight and defence against viruses. Please note, this is especially true for children.

It is also important that all countries throughout the world ban the use of antibiotics in the feed for domestic livestock and that we minimise antibiotic use in the veterinary world.

Let hope brilliant researchers like Dr Pierre Kyme from Cedars-Sinai and also the team at the University of Melbourne find a solution soon because otherwise super bugs may overtake cardiovascular disease and cancer as our biggest killer.