Sask. researchers looking at troubling rise of antibiotic resistance

There are a lot of people who are sick lately and there’s sadly some who will look for relief with antibiotics, even when that’s not the cure for colds.

Antibiotic resistance has been a hot topic this year and one that’s getting a lot of focus by researchers in Saskatchewan.

Andrew Cameron is a professor of biology at the University of Regina and part of the Institute for Microbial Systems and Society Research Laboratory.

Cameron has been working with a team to find out more about antibiotic resistant microbes, including how they travel and how to fight them.

“In light of this rapid rise of resistance, we want to understand how resistance pathogens are transmitting in our health care facilities and in our communities,” Cameron told CBC Radio’s Blue Sky. “If we understand how they move from person-to-person, or what room you might contract them in, then we can intervene and stop their spread.”

Another major focus for Cameron and researchers is understanding why they’re resistant antibiotics and how exactly they become resistant.

“They are growing very, very quickly in number and that’s because of the evolutionary pressure that we put on these micro-organisms by our overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization, antimicrobial resistance claims the lives of an estimated 700,000 people each year and is expected to rise sharply.

Cameron said people will often take antibiotics when they are infected by a virus, which can’t be treated by those antibiotics. He also points to the fact that antibiotics are used more in feed for animals. 

When asked how much responsibility should be placed on doctors for perhaps over-prescribing antibiotics, Cameron said it’s a “very complex” issue.

“There is a lot of human psychology involved in terms of wanting a miracle medicine, and indeed antibiotics have been that miracle medicine for about the past several years,” he said. “It really can’t be overstated how much they have done for us. So indeed we have a high expectation that they can continue to work for us.”

With more and more resistance to antibiotics, the key now according to Cameron is coming up with new ways to stop infections before they even happen.

“Once we figure out those roots of transmission, then we can step in and stop that transmission and even find the source — usually our goal — so that we can eliminate it before more people become infected,” he said. “If we can do that, then the antibiotics would not even be needed.”

Cameron said DNA sequencing technology is now allowing researchers to not only identify the genes that make organisms resistant, but when and why they use them.

“I think this is a very important new direction for this type of research because classically we treat these organisms as either being sensitive to an antibiotic or resistant,” he said. “But what we’re finding is that when we identify the resistance mechanism … we start to understand how they may turn this gene for resistance off and on. And once we start to understand that, then we can hit them when they’re down essentially.”

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