Scary, invincible superbug gene hits Canada

Jan 6, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Juan Gartner/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

We have a new thing to add to the list of "disturbing" scientific discoveries. Scientists recently found a superbug gene that makes bacteria invincible to even the toughest antibiotics. And if that's not scary enough, it's been found on meat sold in Canadian grocery stores.

More: Two new deadly superbugs announced in US — what you need to know

Scientists have discovered that a gene called MCR-1 causes bacteria to resist even the most toxic antibiotic used only as a last resort with patients, colistin. So far, they've found the superbug gene three times — once in a 62-year-old Ontario patient who they think picked it up in Egypt, and twice in ground beef sold to Canadians in a butcher shop and a grocery store in Ontario. Gross, right?

Here's where it gets creepy: The gene MCR-1 hangs out on what's called a plasmid — a small, free floating bit of DNA that can easily hop from one bacterial organism to another. And for those of you who need a primer in bacteria, there are many different, sneaky little species of bacteria. And plasmids can actually share antibiotic-resistant genes between different species of bacteria.

bacteria
Image: Giphy.com

More: The scary truth about antibiotic resistance

Basically, this means that these invincible superbugs can multiply, and if we don't practice proper food safety, we'll have a real public health crisis on our hands.

"It’s clearly the biggest story to come out (in 2015)," says Lance Price, a professor at George Washington University studying antibiotic resistance, in an interview with The Star. "There have been horrible things all year but this is the most disturbing."

Some worry that this gene has been spreading around the globe for some time now and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

"To see it show up was a surprise for me," Dr. Mulvey, chief of antimicrobial resistance at the Public Health Authority of Canada's Winnipeg lab, tells The Star. "It supports that there’s global dissemination of this gene already… we’re now going to have to look back even prior to (2010), because maybe it’s been around for even longer."

Because antibiotic use in hospitals is so commonplace and often unnecessary, bacteria have evolved to survive into these ultra-enhanced superbugs. And these uber tough-to-fight strains of bacteria have forced Canadian hospitals to reluctantly bust out some of the more hardcore antibiotics from the past, like colistin.

"We’ve sort of run out of our good drugs," Price explains. "So out of desperation… we have to revive this old drug because it’s all we have left."

And now superbugs can outsmart even the drugs doctors turn to in "desperation." Yikes!

Protect yourself from superbugs

Mean Girls
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But breathe! There are ways you can take precautions to protect yourself from superbugs: 

It may sound obvious, but Dr. Wendy Stead, an infectious diseases specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, tells PBS that washing your hands with soap and water is essential. "Wash your hands regularly and religiously in the normal times that you would think you should wash them," says Stead. "Give it a good amount of time" — about 15 seconds — "scrubbing hands thoroughly, not just in and out of the water." Also, be sure to avoid harsh antibacterial soap, as it can actually leave your hands vulnerable to bacteria.

Avoiding the overuse of antibiotics when you don't really need them is also key, as is getting a flu shot. "When people get influenza, they actually become at higher risk as they recover for complicating bacterial infections," says Stead.

And most importantly, try not to get scary nightmares from this new research (talking mostly to myself here).

More: Antibacterial soap: Helpful or harmful?

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