Physician-author Matt McCarthy, M.D., visited UT Health San Antonio on Jan. 22 to discuss his book “Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic,” a story of cutting-edge science and the race against the clock to find new treatments to overcome antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The event was sponsored by the Stewart and Marianne Reuter Endowed Professorship in Medical Humanities and organized by Kristy Kosub, M.D., and the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at UT Health San Antonio.
“Superbugs’ is a controversial and broad term. It covers drug-resistant viruses and even this Wuhan virus that is going around. It is slated to be the biggest public health emergency by 2050,” explained Dr. McCarthy to a room with healthcare trainees and professionals.
Dr. McCarthy spoke about his own personal journey into medicine and his start as a baseball player who ended up working in a lab of Nobel laureate Thomas A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University.
Today, Dr. McCarthy is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell and a staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he serves on the Ethics Committee.
While treating patients, Dr. McCarthy noticed that a lot of patients had developed antibiotic resistance, which led him on a quest to figure out more about why hospitals weren’t carrying many drugs that had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He also wanted to know why pharmaceutical companies were not focusing on creating new drugs and also the history of how superbugs came to be.
He learned that superbugs didn’t really exist before the 1960s, and they were only sporadically seen in the world until the 1990s. He explained that humans have misused antibiotics on a large and small scale—from the doctor’s office, to commercial agriculture and farming.
“We’ve misused it on animals like cattle where we pumped antibiotics into animals not because they needed them but to make them bigger,” he explained. “What happens is some bacteria survive because they’ve mutated to survive or they simply are resistant.”
He explained that the soil in commercial agriculture farms for tulips and orange groves are now filled with drug resistant microbes. Just like how cattle and plants have adapted, the bacteria in humans have too.
As a doctor, he was stressed that more patients had been coming in with previously curable illnesses. He explained that pharmaceutical companies weren’t financially motivated to create new drugs especially since they would need to predict what the next outbreak is so that the drug is relevant 10 years later.
“It cost up to a billion dollars to develop a drug and companies only have a short window of 10-15 years of drug exclusivity so there isn’t a lot of incentive to create new antibiotics,” he said.
In the future, he believes that the role of the government will change.
“The government could offer pharmaceutical companies some incentives to make it worth it for them to invest in creating new drugs like extending their exclusivity or subsidizing the cost. Alternatively, the government could also make drugs instead,” he said. “A while ago, this was an unheard of idea but now when you go to infectious disease conferences—it is heavily discussed.”
Dr. McCarthy believes that artificial intelligence may play a role in the development of drugs.
“We may be able to use artificial intelligence to find microbes to find antibiotics,” he said. “AI could screen chemicals and help us narrow the focus.”