Sunday, February 5, 2012

Antibiotic resistance, deadly bacteria, and genetic engineering

Painting by Jessie McClain

"Drug resistant infections kill more Americans than AIDS and breast cancer combined."  Forbes magazine June, 2006

"The two bacteria, ha-MRSA [hospital-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] and ca-MRSA [community-acquired], are only two strains from an entire arsenal of pathogens that are now resistant to almost all available antibiotics."  Der Spiegel, January 20, 2012 from article entitled, "Antibiotics Prove Powerless as SuperGerms Spread."

Both my parents died from MRSA infections, although their death certificates read stroke for my Dad and end-stage renal disease for my Stepmom.  But it was these infections that precipitated the complications that lead to their deaths.  Both were given the big gun antibiotic, vancomycin, which is like chemo therapy.  It didn't save them, in fact the vancomycin was a horrendous drug causing great discomfort for both my parents. 

A recent article from US News by Jason Koehler entitled, "Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Found in 37 U.S. States,  "In at least 37 states, Washinton, D.C., and Puerto Rico, doctors have identified bacteria, including E. coli, that produce Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase, KPC-an enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to most known treatments."   "...the mortality rate for patients infected with KPC-producing bacteria has been estimated to be as high as 50 percent."

Most articles seem to be of the belief that it is factory farms that are to blame for this problem.  Animals are treated with antibiotics whether or not they are sick.  The article from Der Spiegel states, "Some 900 metric tons of antibiotics are administered to livestock each year in Germany alone."

Feeding healthy as well as sick animals antibiotics is certainly a prescription for disaster.  The same can be said about the use of antibiotics in humans (antibiotics given to healthy patients for dental procedures).  Or antibiotics given for people who have colds.  Yet I wonder why it is that there isn't an investigation into genetic engineering and its use of pathogens and antibiotic resistant genes (that are used to trace whether the bacteria has added the new genes).  While the growth of huge feedlots in factory farming seem responsible for the huge use of antibiotics, it would seem that genetic engineering may also have some responsibility for the fact that many pathogens have become resistant to antibiotics.

In an article written by the Union of Concerned Scientists on the. "Risks of Genetic Engineering,"  they state, "Most genetically engineered plant foods carry fully functioning antibiotic-resistance genes."  They believe these genes have several harmful effects:  the degradation of antibiotics in the gut and the transfer of pathogens resistant to antibiotics.

Some of the other risks of genetic engineering discussed in this article are:  production of new toxins, concentration of toxic metals, enhancement of the environment for toxic fungi, and unknown harms to health.

In Common Dreams progessive newswire dated June of 2002, they discuss "new evidence from British scientists raises serious quesitons about the safey of genetically engineered foods."   "...for the first time that a gene inserted in a genetically engineered crop has found its way into bacteria in the human gut."  and "The biotech industry has long maintained that DNA is destroyed during digestion and that there are barriers to incorporation of genetically engineered crop genes by bacteria."

The other day I ran across a very interesting patent owned by Nestec (Nestle) entitled, "Genetic remodeling in Bifidobacterium,"  patent #8071353 filed in August of 2007.  Nestle seems to have seen a problem and found a solution.  "This invention relates to antibiotic sensitivity in lactic acid bacteria.  More particularly it relates to removal of tetracycline resistance genes in Bifidobacterium spp., and a method of removing or disabling genes in Bifidobacterium spp."  and 

"Use of any bacterium that possesses or has acquired antibiotic resistance in food processing or agricultural production poses a potential, theoretical risk of transfer of the resistance fostering genes to other bacteria in the food, the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of a person or animal after consumption of the food, or environment, at some point before or after consumption."

Bifidobacterium is used in probiotics.  Probiotics can be a supplement or added to foods such as infant formula.  Interesting that Nestle seems to be acknowledging and patenting on a "theoretical risk."  Obviously, there is more to this subject than is being publicly discussed.  As far as consumers are concerned, probiotics is about getting healthy.  Maybe?  Maybe not?  What about infants ingesting these substances through infant formula?  Where are the public questions regarding this issue.  I hear the sounds of silence.  
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain

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