A strain of bacteria that is truly resistant to antibiotics has for the first time been found in a patient in the U.S., a troubling milestone that could spell the beginning of the end for conventional treatments, scientists reported Thursday.
The 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman arrived at a clinic with symptoms of a urinary tract infection on April 26, according to the report in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. A culture of her urine was forwarded to a laboratory at the army's Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where the presence of the bacteria E. coli with the mcr-1 gene was discovered.
The gene makes bacteria resistant to colistin, an antibiotic considered a drug of last resort. If rendered ineffective by the gene, it "heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria," the article stated.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden said the discovery marks the "end of the road" is near for antibiotics.
“I’ve been there for TB patients. I’ve cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness,” Frieden added. “This is not where we need to be.”
The gene has been found in other countries, including China, the United Kingdom, and Italy. But the Pennsylvania woman had not traveled outside the U.S. in the last five months, the article's authors noted.
Now, the Walter Reed lab is testing other patients' samples that show a similar kind of E. coli, the researchers said. So far, the gene has not been found, but with testing in early stages, it's not known if it may be present more broadly in the U.S.
Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, a microbiologist, said in a statement Thursday that "swift, aggressive, global action" was needed to stop the spread.
"I have been sounding the alarm for years, and now, what we've been dreading has happened — we have an antibiotic-resistant superbug that can't be killed by any known drug," she said.
Over-using antibiotics to treat livestock at "sub-therapeutic levels" must end or "we’ll never get out ahead of this growing public health crisis," Slaughter added.
Earlier this month, Frieden also outlined the importance of preventing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. And the federal government is directing millions of dollars toward infection prevention and education regarding the proper use of antibiotics.