LONDON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - A multidrug-resistant superbug infection that can cause life-threatening illness in people with cystic fibrosis (CF) has spread globally and is becoming increasingly virulent, British researchers said on Thursday.
In a study published in the journal Science, the researchers said the bug, a species of multidrug-resistant bacteria called Mycobacterium abscessus (M. abscessus), can cause severe pneumonia and is particularly dangerous for patients with CF and other lung diseases.
"The bug initially seems to have entered the patient population from the environment, but we think it has recently evolved to become capable of jumping from patient to patient, getting more virulent as it does so," said Andres Floto, a Cambridge University professor who co-led the study.
Superbugs: Victims and outbreaks
Superbugs: Victims and outbreaks
Kelly and Ryan Breaux stand holding a portrait of their deceased daughter Emma Breaux, at their home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on June 16, 2016. The husband and wife lost twins, Emma and Talon, to different superbugs that they contracted while in the neonatal unit at Lafayette General Hospital. U.S. Picture taken June 16, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Edmund Fountain
Kelly and Ryan Breaux sit holding a portrait of their deceased daughter Emma Breaux in their home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on June 16, 2016. The husband and wife lost twins, Emma and Talon, to different superbugs that they contracted while in the neonatal unit at Lafayette General Hospital. U.S. Picture taken June 16, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Edmund Fountain
Four-year-old Luke Reimer, of Batavia, Illinois, holds a photograph, June 18, 2009, of his twin sister Madeline who died after being born with MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a bacterium that is resistant to many antibiotics. (Photo by Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
Stephanie Hall (L), sits on the couch with her sister, Crystal Silva (R), and their ten year old niece Destini and nephew Kane in El Paso, Texas, U.S. on July 2, 2016. The children's mother, Natalie Silva, contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA, a skin infection that can turn fatal once it enters the bloodstream, when she went to the hospital to deliver Kane. After a 10 month battle with MRSA, Silva died, leaving Hall and the family to raise the two children. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Dan Dalstra
Monica Berckes, poses with the funeral program of her late mother Marianne Rumsey, who died at 61, several months after contracting MRSA during heart surgery, at her home in Secaucus, New Jersey, June 2, 2016. Picture taken June 2, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Mike Segar
Michael Claes, 62, who contracted a superbug while in the hospital, shows a bottle of one of his daily medications on Monday, April 8, 2013 as he recovers at home in New York. Claes caught a bad case of a diarrheal illness caused by Clostridium dificile, while he was a kidney patient at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital in fall 2012. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
At Ammerudlunden nursing home in Oslo, there is an own department for patients with MRSA. Ward nurse Silje Haugo with patient Inger Stoklasa (82), Friday, Oct 9, 2009. In Norway, decrease in use of antibiotics along with strict routines has led to fewer cases of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a virulent drug resistant infection that kills thousands of people around the world every year, and more than 19,000 in the U.S. alone. That's because 25 years ago, this small nation's public health system fought back with an aggressive program that is now being adopted in some hospitals in other countries, including the U.K., Japan and the U.S. (AP Photo/Torbjorn Gronning)
Zachary Rubin (C), medical director of clinical epidemiology and infection prevention, and Robert Cherry (R), chief medical and quality officer for UCLA Health System, attend a news conference by UCLA Health System and county officials at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California February 19, 2015. The large Los Angeles teaching hospital has told scores of patients they were possibly exposed to a drug-resistant bacterial "superbug" during endoscopy procedures that infected seven patients and may have contributed to two deaths. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH DISASTER)
A research assistant with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA carries a portable cooler marked with a biohazard label past the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. A "superbug" outbreak suspected in the deaths of two patients at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles has raised questions about the adequacy of the procedures for disinfecting a medical instrument used on more than a half-million people in the U.S. every year. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Dr. Zachary Rubin, medical director of clinical epidemiology and infection prevention at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, left, and Dr. Robert Cherry, chief medical and quality officer for UCLA Health System, take questions from the media in Los Angeles Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. Los Angeles County health officials say a "superbug" bacterial outbreak at the local hospital doesn't pose any threat to public health. A day earlier, UCLA officials said nearly 180 patients at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center had been exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria called CRE. Seven of them got the infection and two of those people have died. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
A sample bottle containing E. coli bacteria is seen at the Health Protection Agency in north London March 9, 2011. For decades scientists have managed to develop new medicines to stay at least one step ahead of the ever-mutating enemy, bacteria. Now, though, we may be running out of road. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, alone is estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States -- far more than HIV and AIDS -- and a similar number in Europe, and other drug-resistant superbugs are spreading. Picture taken March 9, 2011. To match Special Report ANTIBIOTICS/ REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (BRITAIN - Tags: HEALTH SCI TECH)
An employee displays MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria strain inside a petri dish containing agar jelly for bacterial culture in a microbiological laboratory in Berlin March 1, 2008. MRSA is a drug-resistant "superbug", which can cause deadly infections. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY)
A view of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California March 19, 2015. UCLA, the hospital at the center of the "superbug" outbreak that killed two people and infected seven last month has received poor patient safety scores and had its payments cut by Medicare for high rates of hospital-acquired infections. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
This digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph depicts four magenta-colored, spherical methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria in the process of being phagocytized by a blue-colored human white blood cells in this undated handout photo. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLYONLY
MIAMI - OCTOBER 17: Miami VA Medical Center hospital registered nurse, Rafael Sepulveda, pulls on rubber gloves while attending to patients in the Emergency room October 17, 2007 in Miami, Florida. The hospital has strict policies in place to ensure that the staff uses procedures in the fight against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly referred to as MRSA. The staph bacterium is resistant to most common antibiotics and has been responsible for more than nearly 19,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Cystic fibrosis is a relatively rare genetic disorder that affects the respiratory, digestive and reproductive systems. It causes patients' lungs to become clogged up with thick, sticky mucus and makes them vulnerable to respiratory infections.
In this study, researchers from Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute sequenced the genomes of more than 1,000 samples of mycobacteria from 517 CF patients at specialist clinics in Europe, the United States and Australia.
They found that the majority of patients had picked up transmissible forms of M. abscessus that had spread globally.
Further analysis suggested the infection may be transmitted within hospitals via contaminated surfaces and through the air, the researchers said - presenting a serious challenge to infection control practices in hospitals.
Because the superbug has already become resistant to many antibiotics, it is also extremely difficult to treat successfully, Floto said. Patients infected with it need 18 months or more of treatment with a combination of powerful antibiotics, and fewer than one in three cases is cured.
Julian Parkhill of the Sanger Institute, who worked on this study, said that while its findings were alarming for CF patients, they did also provide a degree of hope.
"Now that we know the extent of the problem and are beginning to understand how the infection spreads, we can start to respond," he said.
The sequencing data has thrown up potential new drug targets, he explained, and the researchers now plan to focus on seeking to develop new medicines to beat the bug. (Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Mak Heinrich)