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Defeating the superbugs.

Barton, Hazel.
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About this work


Across the world we are seeing the emergence of superbugs; dangerous bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This is a major public health threat for which more sophisticated means are being sought out to combat superbugs. Horizon meets the scientists who are tracking superbugs, and explores the development of new defence techniques. In caves hundreds of meters below ground Professor Hazel Barton is hunting for microbes. Microbes are used to create antibiotics and with the failure of current antibiotics it is becoming crucial new ones are found. In 2006 Master Sgt Daniel Robles having lost his legs whilst serving in Iraq was brought to Brook Army Medical Centre in Texas, however after several day his infected wounds were not healing. Chief of Infectious Disease Service Lt. Colonel Clinton Murray explains that the patient had brought back from Iraq three of the toughest superbugs. As standard antibiotics were ineffective more powerful ones were employed. Murray explains that antibiotics from ten years are now almost completely ineffective due to a growing antibiotic resistance. Dr. Ruth Mcnerney discusses a new strain of tuberculosis that has been discovered outside the UK and is resistant to all known antibiotics. Scientists are now investigating how superbugs have gained resistance and how we can defeat them. At Harvard University Roy Kershony is using a morbidostat to create a highly resistant version of E Coli. Through exposure to low levels of antibiotics the bacteria develop resistance. Kershony proposes that by examining bacteria genes we can identify the change that has caused resistance. In Pakistan Professor Tim Walsh visits Karachi Civil Hospital to discuss with doctors how improving conditions at the hospital can prevent the spread of superbugs. In most parts of Asia antibiotics are available over the counter without prescription or instruction. Walsh argues self-medication can expose bacteria to sub killing concentration, which only serves to increase their resistance. Elsewhere in Asia outlets from the industrial manufacture of antibiotics have contaminated rivers, creating perfect conditions for superbugs. By examining the genetic difference in the bacteria of Staph Auereus and Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA) Professor Lance Price traces the evolution of these bugs and determines how and when they became resistant. In a new strain of MRSA Price noticed most of the infected had worked with livestock. Further investigation revealed the bacteria had passed from pigs into people. Farmers use antibiotics in animal feed to to keep closely packed animals healthy and ensure fast growth, and Price believes this can create superbugs. At a sewerage works microbiologist Dr. David Harper is collecting bacteriophages; a virus that specifically kill bacteria. Harper hopes bacteriophages can be manufactured to fight against bacteria as unlike antibiotics bacteriophages evolve and can therefore be effective against mutated bacteria. Professor Bonnie Bassler argues we may not have to be so aggressive in our fight with bacteria. If we understand how bacteria work as a group then behaviour modification can be used to control bacteria. By studying vibrio fischeri; the bacterium that live in the Hawaiian bobtail squid and use quorum sensing to communicate as a group, scientists can better understand bacteria behaviour. Bassler discovered bacteria use quorum sensing to coordinate attacks, and argues if we can interrupt these conversations then group behaviour can be stopped. We now understand bacteria better than ever before and maybe we don’t need to triumph but simply stay one step ahead.


UK : Wellcome Trust, 2012.

Physical description

1 DVD (50 min.) : sound, color, PAL.

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Broadcast on 10 September, 2012

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  • English

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