GENTECH archive


Scientists 'are losing war on superbugs'

January 28 1999
TIMES (London)

Scientists 'are losing war on superbugs'


SCIENTISTS are losing the war against superbugs, an Oxford scientist
said last night. New forms of highly evolved bacteria that have begun
to appear in British hospitals can defy every known antibiotic.

Martin Westwell delivered the stark warning in the first of a new
series of Royal Institution lectures, sponsored by The Times. The
Scientists for the New Century lecture series has been established to
promote the work of young scientists such as Dr Westwell, a
27-year-old Cambridge-trained chemist, who are in the forefront of
research but rarely have the opportunity to explain their work to the

Dr Westwell explained that current strains of bacteria had evolved
chemical tricks to outwit even the most powerful drugs. Vancomycin,
often called the "antibiotic of last resort", was now powerless
against some of the nastiest bugs.

As a result, he said, hospitals were having to contain, rather than
combat, infections. It is possible that the infections could creep
into smaller hospitals and nursing homes with less vigilant controls,
and from there find their way into the general community. Such a
scenario, Dr Westwell said, would be a public health disaster and
might cripple the NHS.

If any new drug does prove effective, scientists will still have to
keep searching. Bacteria typically evolve resistance to any drug
within about four years of its introduction.

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