Last-line antibiotics losing ability to kill superbugs in EU


* ECDC survey shows rise in carbapenem resistance

* Problem most acute in southern Europe

* Health experts urge prudent drug use, more research

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Europe faces a growing threatfrom superbugs that are resistant to a powerful, last-resortclass of antibiotics known as carbapenems, the EU's diseasemonitoring agency said on Friday.

It is the latest in a series of warnings about antibioticresistance from healthcare authorities around the world who fearthat in future simple infections may no longer respond tomedical treatment.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics has fuelled a rise indrug-resistant infections and experts are particularly alarmedabout bacteria that cannot be killed with carbapenems, the mostpowerful class of antibiotic drugs.

The proportion of infections resistant to carbapenems hasincreased sharply in the last four years - particularly insouthern Europe - and almost all European countries now havereported cases, the European Centre for Diseases Prevention andControl (ECDC) said.

The most severe cases involve bloodstream infections, butdrug-resistant bugs can also more frequently cause seriousproblems in the respiratory and urinary tracts.

The ECDC data showed that the proportion of bloodstreaminfections due to Klebsiella pneumoniae, a common cause ofillness in hospital patients, that were resistant to carbapenemswas above 5 percent in 2012 in five countries - Greece, Cyprus,Italy, Romania and Slovakia.

In 2009, only Greece and Cyprus exceeded that threshold.

And the ECDC said a new concern was the emergence ofcarbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter bacteria, which now representmore than 25 percent of infections in eight of 18 countriesreporting data.

"Carbapenems are the last-line class of antibiotics, so thesituation is really worrying," ECDC director Marc Sprenger said.

"Since 2009, it has become increasingly common for hospitalsto be faced with treating patients that havecarbapenem-resistant infections, often meaning that old andtoxic drugs are used."


In addition to the need for more prudent use of antibiotics- including a greater awareness among the public that theycannot kill viruses - officials said there had to be moreresearch into new antibiotics.

In recent years, there has been a rush for the exit by thedrugs industry as its researchers have struggled to find leadsfor novel antimicrobial drugs. Companies have turned instead tomore profitable lines of drug research, including treatments forcancer and chronic diseases.

Pfizer, once the leader in the field, closed itsantibiotic research centre in Connecticut in 2011, to the dismayof many scientists. It now focuses anti-bacterial work onvaccines.

Others to have quit include Bristol-Myers Squibb andEli Lilly, leaving only a handful of firms likeGlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co in the game.

Switzerland's Roche, however, has re-entered thearena through a $550 million tie-up with privately held Polyphorthis month to develop and commercialise an experimentalantibiotic against hospital superbugs.

Roche's initiative was welcomed by Maire Geoghegan-Quinn,European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science,speaking at a news conference that was webcast from Brussels onFriday.

"We need to find ways to use valuable antimicrobial drugsmore wisely and to develop new drugs and treatments," she said,adding that an EU decision to provide funding to Polyphor underan antibiotic research project was vindicated by Roche's move.

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