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EU Health Prize for Journalists 2011

EU Health Prize for Journalists 2011 

When the drugs don't work 

By Ben Hirschler, Kate Kelland, national nominee for United Kingdom and 1st Prize winner 

* "Superbugs" on the rise as bacteria evolve resistance 

* Drug companies retreat from antibiotic development 

* Threatens future of surgery and cancer treatment 

* Pipeline of new antibiotics running dry 

LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) - David Livermore is in a race against evolution. In his north 

London lab, he holds up an evil-smelling culture plate smeared with bacteria. This creamy-

yellow growth is the enemy: a new strain of germs resistant to the most powerful antibiotics yet 

devised by humankind. 

Out on the streets, Steve Owen is running the same race -- physically pounding the pavements to 

draw attention to the problem of drug-resistant infections. 

Owen's father Donald died four years ago of multiple organ failure in a British hospital. He had 

checked in for a knee operation. But what he got was methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus 

aureus, commonly known as MRSA, a so-called "superbug" that all the drugs his doctors 

prescribed couldn't beat. After almost 18 months of severe pain, the infection got into his blood, 

overpowered his vital organs and killed him. 

Owen and his wife Jules have pledged to run 12 big races in as many months, to raise funds for a 

charity that is working to fight MRSA. "It just shouldn't have happened," says Jules, as the pair 

nurse their own aching limbs after running a half-marathon. "It was his knee -- that's not 

something he should have died from." 

Welcome to a world where the drugs don't work. 

After Alexander Fleming's 1928 discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, we quickly came to 

assume we had the chemicals to beat bacteria. Sure, bugs evolve to develop resistance. But for 

decades scientists have managed to develop new medicines to stay at least one step ahead of an 

ever-mutating enemy. 

Now, though, we may be running out of road. MRSA alone is estimated to kill around 19,000 

people every year in the United States -- far more than HIV and AIDS -- and a similar number in 

Europe. Other drug-resistant superbugs are spreading. Cases of often fatal "extensively drug 

resistant" tuberculosis have mushroomed over the past few years. A new wave of "super 

superbugs" with a mutation called NDM 1, which first emerged in India, has now turned up all 

over the world, from Britain to New Zealand. 

NDM 1 is what's growing on the plates that Livermore holds in his gloved hands. "You can't win 

against evolution," says the scientist, who spends his days tracking the emergence of superbugs