We're a little crazy, about science!

Preemies’ gut bacteria reveal vast scope of antibiotic resistance

premature baby

Yesterday we blogged about the emergent and increasing antibiotic resistance problem, which was good — or bad timing — depending on how you look at it. A new study of gut bacteria in premature infants reveals the vast scope of the problem of antibiotic resistance and gives new insight into the extreme vulnerability of these young patients, according to researchers.

The gut microbiome has emerged in recent years as a vital player in human health, affecting factors as diverse as nutritional status, bone development and immune function. The new study shows that the microbes colonizing the gastrointestinal tracts of babies born prematurely are not health-promoting or even benign organisms, but close relatives of bacteria known to cause hospital-acquired infections, including Escherichia coli (E. coli),Klebsiella and Enterobacter.

The researchers sequenced all of the DNA in the bacterial communities living in the preterm babies’ guts. Using new techniques they developed, the investigators identified almost 800 genes in these bacterial communities that confer resistance to antibiotics. They noted that about 80 percent of these genes had not previously been associated with antibiotic resistance.

“Our study demonstrates that even well-studied bacteria — the ones that we know cause disease or their close relatives — have many genes associated with antibiotic resistance that have not been characterized before,” said senior author Gautam Dantas, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology.

“Premature babies do not always get bacterial infections that need treatment, but we have known for a long time that they are at higher risk for infection than babies born full term. Now, we know that preterm-infant guts are attracting exactly the wrong kinds of bacteria.”

Because of this increased risk of infection, almost all preterm infants cared for in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) receive antibiotics in the first two days of life, regardless of their health status. And a majority of those receive many more days of treatment.

“Extremely preterm infants often have multiple medical problems, with symptoms of prematurity overlapping with other conditions like infection,” said co-author Barbara B. Warner, MD, a professor of pediatrics and neonatologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“The conventional wisdom has been antibiotics can’t hurt and they might help. But our new study demonstrates that wide-scale use of antibiotics in this population does not come without cost.”

The study included babies cared for in the NICU of St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where the investigators collected 401 fecal samples from 84 preterm infants over the first three months of life. By sequencing all of the bacterial DNA in these fecal samples, the investigators identified resistance genes to 16 different antibiotics.

The babies that received antibiotics only in the first few days of life served as a comparison group to the babies that received antibiotics early plus subsequent treatments later. On average, the babies that continued receiving antibiotics had a total of 21 days of treatment. All babies were born before 33 weeks’ gestation.

The specific antibiotics associated with the lowest species richness were drugs called meropenem, cefotaxime and ticarcillin-clavulanate. The meropenem finding is particularly alarming, as it’s part of the carbapenem class of drugs that are considered antibiotics of last resort. They are used to treat infections caused by bacteria closely related to the species most commonly found in these infants’ GI tracts.

“Consider what is going on in terms of selection pressure,” Dantas said.

“As with any antibiotic, giving carbapenems encourages the selection of bacteria resistant to this drug. And if these microbes, which dominate these babies’ guts, become resistant to carbapenems, the microbes go on the highest urgency threat list at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

According to the CDC, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are resistant to nearly all existing antibiotics and about half of patients in intensive care units who contract a bloodstream infection from CRE die from that infection. Enterobacteriaceae is a large family of bacteria that includes E. coli, Klebsiella and Enterobacter.

In the new study, the two antibiotics most commonly given to the preterm infants were found to be vancomycin and gentamicin, which both had divergent effects on species richness. The researchers were able to predict the direction of this effect with high accuracy, based on the sequences of bacteria present and the resistance genes they carried in samples taken before treatment.

The researchers also showed that treating with one antibiotic can dial up resistance to seemingly unrelated antibiotics. Dantas said this surprising finding makes sense because they found the majority of these microbes were resistant to multiple drugs, showing that resistance genes tend to cluster together in the same organisms.

“This data demonstrates the collateral damage these drugs can do,” Dantas said.

“If doctors give penicillin, it makes sense that you will see enrichment in the proportion of bacteria resistant to penicillin. But perhaps a vancomycin-resistant gene is nearby. A doctor may not even be giving vancomycin, but vancomycin resistance increases because the genes happen to be grouped together.”

“This is a consequence of our history of antibiotic use,” he added. “We’ve given these bacteria powerful reasons to collect all these resistance genes together.”

Warner expressed hope that clinicians will use this information to make decisions about the best ways to treat these vulnerable patients.

“While antibiotics can certainly still be lifesaving, we are becoming more aware of the risks they pose,” she said.

“This study arms us with information that may help us push toward shorter antibiotic treatment courses and minimizing the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics.”

Dantas expressed concern over the dwindling numbers of effective antibiotics and the fact that few new drugs are in development. He also suggested a shift in strategy for the design of new generations of antibiotics.

“If we can stop these bacteria from producing toxins, rather than kill them outright, we won’t see the same selection pressure,” he said. “We don’t necessarily need to kill these bacteria, we just need to stop them from killing us.”

Which is a sentiment I think we can all get behind. It also brings me back to the idea that we can engineer our way out of this corner by changing us and not the bacteria, we don’t even need to stop the bacteria from producing toxins, we could just be looking for a way to break down the toxin to something more innocuous.

Gibson, M., Wang, B., Ahmadi, S., Burnham, C., Tarr, P., Warner, B., & Dantas, G. (2016). Developmental dynamics of the preterm infant gut microbiota and antibiotic resistome Nature Microbiology DOI: 10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.24

4 responses

  1. Politicians need to urgently finance this sort of research. I think they need also to support the big drug companies to find new antibiotics.
    Nature never stands still ; when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin he predicted this would happen.
    Let focus science on important issues and wind down the nonsense.


    March 7, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    • Agreed, new antibiotics are going to be needed even if only for the short term. It’s frustrating that the people in the position to change this are acting surprised that it’s actually happening, like evolutionary pressure is a new idea or something. What we need is more scientists in government positions. It doesn’t make sense for people who don’t have any idea about science and technology to be leading the whole system.


      March 7, 2016 at 6:32 pm

  2. meghanmcgee

    I love that line: “We don’t necessarily need to kill these bacteria, we just need to stop them from killing us.” Antibiotics have saved the lives of so many people for decades, but now they seem to be leading to our demise…
    One of the biggest problems I have is with the use of preventative antibiotics in animal feed. If only there was another way of safely raising animals for mass consumption.


    March 7, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    • I agree, which is one of the points I made in yesterday’s post. I don’t know how pro-genetic engineering you are, but we could easily develop the gene editing tech needed to help deal with the toxins bacterial infections produce before human trials. Then again there is so many different things wrong with our food supply chain globally that even if there was support, it might never happen. I guess it’s just frustrating all around when trying to correct something so widespread and established.


      March 7, 2016 at 6:29 pm

But enough about us, what about you?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.