Superbugs: How can we tackle one of the biggest threats to global health?

Wednesday 22 May 2024.

Superbugs: How can we tackle one of the biggest threats to global health?

Wednesday 22 May 2024.
Online debate.

  • Every year, 1.2 million people around the world die from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the ability of bacteria to adapt and resist drugs designed to combat them is already one of the biggest threats to global public health. If the rise is left unchecked, the number of people dying from infections is expected to reach around 10 million by 2050. Experts are urging action to address this situation and reverse the dire projections for the short and medium term.

    Multidrug-resistant bacteria have spread. They used to target immunocompromised patients in hospitals, but have now made the leap into the community, with tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections becoming resistant. The misuse or abuse of antibiotics, both in healthcare and in veterinary medicine, is behind this health crisis, which is growing relentlessly due also to other factors, such as the lack of new families of antibiotics to strengthen the therapeutic arsenal and the increase in travel associated with globalisation, which helps to spread resistance.

    In response, countries have started to reduce the administration of antibiotics in veterinary settings and to rationalise their use in healthcare to prevent new superbugs and try to reverse existing resistances. Some bacteria become susceptible again when the antibiotic is removed from the environment for a period of time.

    Discovering new antibiotics that are effective against these micro-organisms is a challenge for the pharmaceutical industry: research can go on for decades without results, which discourages investment. Experts suggest that financial incentives should be introduced to revive interest. Other avenues of research are also being explored to find new therapeutic tools.

    In this debate, we will talk to three researchers who are leading projects supported by the ”la Caixa” Foundation that aim to find solutions to this situation. What do these projects entail? What progress has been made?

    The project led by Daniel López Serrano aims to restore the effectiveness of antibiotics that have become ineffective due to the increase in resistant bacteria. In previous studies, his team discovered a cellular process essential for the survival of bacteria during infections and has been able to design treatments that inhibit this process. In this situation, the administration of classic antibiotics works because the bacteria have deactivated their resistance mechanisms. The great advantage of this approach is that it proposes a treatment capable of curing infections that could not otherwise be cured, and it does so by reactivating commercially available antibiotics. So far, they have developed the procedure for a couple of bacterial species and are now going to try to expand that knowledge to other species that are most common in hospitals, in order to create a treatment that is universal.

    When a new antibiotic is developed, it may have a promising bactericidal capacity but not be able to cross the bacterial membrane. Current strategies to facilitate this membrane crossing have not been entirely effective. The project led by Javier Montenegro uses a new approach to transporting antibiotics into bacteria that has great potential to enable the use of existing antibiotics in strains that are resistant or have limited permeability. It is based on a recently discovered property of boron that allows hydrophilic molecules to pass through cell membranes. The project is studying the basis of this mechanism in order to apply it to antibiotic transport.

    Klebsiella pneumoniae is a bacterium that can be found in any environment, for example it is present in the gut microbiota of most people without causing harm. However, in certain contexts it can cause potentially life-threatening infections. In the hospital setting, it is often transmitted through contact with the skin, mucous membranes, faeces, wounds or urine of an infected person and is a major cause of pneumonia and septicaemia in people of all ages. Because some strains of this bacterium are developing resistance to multiple antibiotics, their use is no longer effective in a growing percentage of patients in different regions of the world. For this reason, the WHO has classified this bacterium as a species of critical concern in the health field. The project led by Mireia López Siles aims to prevent these infections with a vaccine, which would have a huge impact in terms of both health and economics. The project is currently in the pre-clinical phase. Its objective in this phase is to evaluate the in vivo protective capacity of KlebsiGene, a DNA vaccine developed by the Universitat de Girona and the Instituto de Salud Carlos III, and to improve its formulation.


    • Daniel López Serrano, principal researcher of the Molecular Infection Biology group at the National Centre for Biotechnology (CNB), Madrid.

    • Javier Montenegro, principal researcher at the Center for Research in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Materials (CIQUS) and tenured lecturer at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela.

    • Mireia López Siles, assistant lecturer and researcher in the Intestinal Disease Microbiology group at the Universitat de Girona (UG).



    • Cristina Velázquez, head of the health section of Europa Press and Infosalus.


    Projects supported by CaixaResearch: