Superbugs — friends and foes

Posted on: 1st December, 2014

Category: Health & Lifestyle

Contributor: West Cork People

While antibiotics save millions of lives, very few new antibiotics have come into use since the 1960s and antibiotic resistance has become a serious problem. “The antibiotic crisis will make routine operations impossible and a scratched knee could be fatal.”  This is the bleak message from Dr Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation, regarding the crisis of antibiotic resistant superbugs. She went on to add that we could be witnessing the “End of modern medicine as we know it. For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent”.

In the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) in Cork, novel strategies are being looked for to combat these antibiotic resistant superbugs. One very innovative strategy is to take advantage of the harmless and even beneficial bacteria found naturally on the human body, which help us to fight infections. These bacteria, collectively known as the ‘microbiota’ and comprised of 10 microrganisms, play an important role in human health.

At a public forum, which took place recently, as part of the Celebrate Science festival in Cork, Professor Colin Hill, Chair of Microbial Food Safety at UCC and Principal Investigator at the APC, described several examples of how these ‘super’ bugs can be used to protect us from, or even treat, some very dangerous and even lethal superbug infections.

Prof. Hill described the discovery of Thuricin CD, a special type of antimicrobial called a bacteriocin, which was isolated in Cork and can be used to treat infections of Clostridium difficile.  C.difficile is one of the life-threatening antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which can be a serious problem in the elderly.  In addition, he discussed the use of bacteriophage — viruses which kill bacteria — to treat lung infections in cystic fibrosis and C. difficile infections. He also spoke about using probiotics to prevent and faecal transplants to treat C.difficile infections.

Professor Mary Horgan, MD, Dean of School of Medicine UCC and Consultant in Infectious Disease at Cork University Hospital, highlighted lessons learnt from the latest infection threats. New infections emerge for a variety of reasons; ecological, environmental and human factors that put people in contact with unfamiliar bugs.  Bugs are smart and want to survive, so they develop strategies to evade our immune systems or the treatments we have to kill them. Surveillance systems to promptly identify new infection threats are essential in dealing with new infections. Research is pivotal in our bid to expand knowledge, develop vaccines and treatments and educate the public in a meaningful way. Over the past decade, SARS, H1N1 influenza (‘swine flu’) and Ebola have given us challenges and opportunities in the field of Infection.

While more 10,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus in the current outbreak in West Africa and there have been more than 4,500 deaths, respiratory illnesses such as influenza, pneumonia and respiratory syncytial virus are a much greater cause of concern, as they resulted in four million deaths globally in 2013. HIV/AIDs, Malaria TB and diarrhoeal diseases caused a further 2.5, 1.3-3.0, 1.7 and 1.8 million deaths, respectively, in 2013. Because respiratory infections are much more easily transmitted, they pose a far greater threat in Ireland. Prof. Horgan argued that everyone should consider getting vaccinated against influenza, not just those most at risk, as the vaccine reduces death by 80 per cent.

Prof John Cryan, Chair of Anatomy and Neuroscience at UCC  and a Principal Investigator at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, spoke about exciting new research showing that how we behave and feel may be controlled by the bacteria in our gut. Yes those bacteria may be at the core of us feeling happy or stressed.  Moreover, studies from the APC have shown that these bacteria are crucial for social behaviour and brain development. This has implications for a host of disorders ranging from depression to autism spectrum disorders. Cryan will discuss the factors that control the composition of our gut microbes and point to where this ground-breaking research is going.

The forum was part of Celebrate Science, a new science festival co-ordinated by the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in partnership with the education and public engagement staff of seven other Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres: AMBER, Infant, Insight, IPIC, Lero, MaREI and SSPC. Celebrate Science Festival activities took place in Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Galway. The festival was funded through SFI Discover’s Public Engagement programme.  For further information see

The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre,  is a national centre for food and medicine funded by government and industry through Science Foundation Ireland’s Research Centres’ programme.  APC’s research focuses on the role that the gastrointestinal bacterial community (microbiota) plays in health and disease.


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