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‘Superbug’ bacteria gang up on us, fueled by antibiotic use, nursing home study suggests

What’s worse than getting exposed to a kind of bacteria that modern antibiotics can’t kill? Getting exposed to more than one – because they may work together to cause an infection, new research suggests.

And trying different antibiotics to control one such “superbug” may only encourage others lurking nearby, according to new findings made in hundreds of nursing home patients by a team from the University of Michigan.

In fact, the researchers say it’s time to think about such bacteria as members of an antibiotic-resistant ecosystem in healthcare environments – not as single species that act and respond alone.

Forty percent of the 234 frail elderly patients in their study had more than one multidrug-resistant organism, or MDRO, living on their bodies. Patients who had specific pairs of MDROs were more likely to develop a urinary tract infection involving an MDRO.

The researchers created a map of interactions among bacteria and classes of antibiotics, which they’ve published with their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Eventually, that kind of mapping could help healthcare providers. For instance, they could choose to treat a patient with a specific antibiotic not just because of its ability to kill one MDRO, but also for its potential downstream impact on other MDROs that may be lurking on the patient, or nearby.

But that will take time, and more research in the laboratory and in healthcare facilities, say the researchers, led by systems biologist Evan Snitkin, Ph.D. of the U-M Medical School Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

So in the meantime, they hope their new findings will give healthcare providers and patients even more reason to avoid using antibiotics in the first place unless they’re truly necessary – because “superbugs” evolve in response to them.