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Battling superbugs: CNM professor warns of rising threat

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

No one knows for sure how many people died during the global influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 – estimates put the number at from 30 million to 50 million.

Medical experts agree, however, that the so-called Spanish flu – which killed some 675,000 people in the United States alone – was one of the deadliest natural disasters ever.

Dr. Philip Lister, chair of the Department of Biology and Biotechnology at CNM, is on the watch for superbugs that are immune to antibiotics. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Philip Lister, chair of the Department of Biology and Biotechnology at CNM, is on the watch for superbugs that are immune to antibiotics. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Philip Lister, chairman of the Department of Biology and Biotechnology at Central New Mexico Community College, is acutely aware of the continuing threat certain microorganisms – particularly viruses and bacteria – pose to humanity.

A few months ago, the National Institutes of Health called on him to chair a panel of experts to consider and rank grant applications from around the world aimed at finding new ways to combat and treat infections.

“Bacteria always find a way,” Lister says. Pathogens, at any given time, could launch a wide-scale attack on the human race, and we will probably never be able to rid the world of the threat, he says. The best we can hope for is to slow down any charge of potentially dangerous bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms.

The NIH first drafted Lister to help out about 15 years ago, when he was a professor of medical microbiology and immunology at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. (“One of the world’s top antibacterial research labs anywhere is in Creighton,” he says.)

This time around, the panelists under his charge, experts all, ranked more than 30 applications, then met in Bethesda, Md., in mid-January for two days to go over and compare findings. Their final votes were private. The decision on which to fund is up to the NIH, but grants will range from $5 million to $7 million each over five years.

“This research … is going to be very significant,” says Lister, an editor of the top-rated international Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. “The U.S. and rest of the world may have only a short period of time to act before it’s too late to impact the spread of drug-resistant superbugs. The pipeline of new antibiotics approved by the (Federal Drug Administration) has been diminishing at an alarming rate, and bacteria and other microorganisms have continued to evolve in response to the antimicrobial threat we present to them.”

A leg up

It is a theme he returned to again and again during a recent interview in CNM’s microbiology laboratory.

“We are now faced with patients infected with bacteria that are resistant to all available antibiotics,” he says, “and physicians treating these infections are left with combining antibiotics in the hopes that something will work.”

In awarding the grants, the NIH hopes to find better ways to use already available drugs, as well as to identify new drugs. However, new drugs tend to be related to those previously available, and bacteria may already have a leg up in resisting their effects. The agency is also looking for the best combinations of drugs and the optimal way of administering them to patients.

Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to some antibiotics, is responsible for difficult-to-treat infections. Dr. Philip Lister helped recommend which scientists should get federal grants for research on new ways to combat and treat infections. (National Institutes of Health/Wikipedia)

Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to some antibiotics, is responsible for difficult-to-treat infections. Dr. Philip Lister helped recommend which scientists should get federal grants for research on new ways to combat and treat infections. (National Institutes of Health/Wikipedia)

For various reasons, pharmaceutical companies are pulling out of the research effort, says Lister. As a result, he adds, “the NIH is pushing academia to pick up the slack.”

For years, faced with evidence of increasing bacterial resistance to drugs, pathologists have warned that the use of antibiotics should be scaled back. But because of a “sort of vicious cycle,” Lister says, in which patients demand treatment and doctors feel the need to treat them, the use of antibiotics spiraled almost out of control, resulting in drug-resistant superbugs.

These superbugs tend to infect people with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly, the very young and patients who have spent time in a hospital. A study published in September’s Journal of the American Medical Association said more than 2 million U.S. residents develop antibiotic-resistant infections every year and about 1 percent – 23,000 – die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, the CDC named the top five health threats expected in 2014. At the top of the list was antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Although use of antibiotics in general has fallen in the United States over the past 10 years, the level is still among the highest of any Western country. About half of antibiotic prescriptions are probably unnecessary, the agency said.

‘I love the mountains’

Lister grew up in Kansas and earned his bachelor’s degree at Kansas State University. He left to attend graduate school at Creighton.

After he earned his Ph.D., the school asked him to stay, and he did, for 25 years.

Lister has also served on the editorial boards of Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, and the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

About 2½ years ago, the gregarious biologist moved to New Mexico, where he had been offered the department chair position at CNM. He has no plans to leave.

“I love the mountains, the desert,” he says. “I love everything about New Mexico.”

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