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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
New antibiotics 'could prove deadly'
Staphylococcus aureus
Bacteria have acquired resistance to drugs
A new class of antibiotics offers massive benefits to today's patients - but could place future generations in danger, say experts.

Some scientists say that the principle behind a new crop of drugs currently under development will make it far tougher for bugs to become resistant to them.

This is because they work in the same way as many of the methods which the body itself has always used to rid itself of bacterial infections.

But other researchers say that it is quite possible that bacteria will acquire resistance - and when they do, this will make life far more difficult, as our own defence mechanisms will be rendered far less potent.

Cuts and grazes

Even minor cuts and grazes will take far longer to heal, they warn, and could even progress to far more serious bacterial infections.

In addition, the researchers say, the body's inability to keep down other types of bacteria could lead to a surge in chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cystic fibrosis.

The new family of drugs, called "Ramp" antimicrobials, are being developed in response to growing resistance to existing antibiotic drugs.

There are fears that virtually all drugs could be rendered far less effective as microbes evolve to dodge their attacks.

Infection risk

However Professor Graham Bell, from McGill University in Canada, warns that the new antibiotics pose "a serious and unprecedented" risk to public health.

He warns that regulatory authorities tend not to look many years ahead when deciding whether to grant licences to new drugs.

"They are poorly designed to detect even grave and highly probable risks to public health arising from the population biology of microbes.

"Instead of dismissing the possibility that widespread resistance will evolve, we should use the bitter experience that we have gained from conventional antibiotics to plan for it."

Researchers are learning more about how bacteria manage to acquire resistance to the drugs designed to wipe them out.

Because they reproduce so often, genetic mutations arise frequently, and occasionally these will equip the bacterium better to resist antibiotics.

When antibiotics are given - particularly if a full course is not completed - this gives the resistant colonies a chance to get established and develop further resistance.

Research has shown that certain bacteria species can even exchange genetic material - possibly including resistance genes - from other species simply through close contact.

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