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WATCH: Antimicrobial Resistance Expert Sounds the Alarm

April 30, 2024 - Eden McCleskey

When it comes to looming existential threats, war, famine and climate change tend to get top billing, but medical scientists are focused on one that deserves significantly more public attention than it gets: antimicrobial resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when infections develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. To combat such infections, newer and stronger antimicrobials must be developed and deployed. Eventually the germs evolve new ways to respond and survive, trapping us in a costly, escalating and seemingly endless game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Cesar Arias, chief of Infectious Disease at Houston Methodist Hospital, has been at the forefront of antimicrobial resistance research for more than 25 years. He is fascinated by the way bacteria can change and adapt in response to antimicrobial agents and how this can have enormous clinical and public health consequences.

"Historically, we've underestimated bacteria's remarkable genetic abilities to adapt and survive and taken for granted that antibiotics would always work," Dr. Arias says. "That is already proving to be false, and the situation is only getting worse."

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria currently causes over 35,000 deaths in the United States each year and contributes to nearly 5 million annual global deaths.

"By the year 2050, there will be more deaths due to antibiotic resistant infections than cancer," Dr. Arias says. "This is one of the defining health problems of our age."

In 2021, Dr. Arias joined Houston Methodist to lead its renowned team of infectious disease researchers and clinicians and launch its ambitious new Center for Infectious Diseases Research dedicated to building on successes and lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic to advance public health.

By recruiting one of the most accomplished experts in the field, Houston Methodist singled out antimicrobial resistance as one of its top research priorities, a move it hoped would inspire others to follow suit.

"Superbugs and MRSA outbreaks are certainly alarming, but our biggest fear is that we may reach a point where antibiotics simply don't work anymore," Dr. Arias explained. "That would be catastrophic because nearly everything we do in modern day medicine, whether it's treating cancer or transplanting organs, performing an emergency c-section or developing one of the countless minimally invasive procedures to help patients manage chronic and acute conditions, all of these are dependent on our ability to control infections along the way."

To prevent that from happening, Dr. Arias and scientists at the Center for Infectious Diseases are working on a cutting-edge, NIH-funded initiative that could produce a more coordinated, strategic approach to the fight against antimicrobial resistance, a dramatic improvement over the current antibiotic arms race. They are also playing a key role in local, national and international efforts to push the agenda of antimicrobial resistance to the forefront of policy decisions.

Learn more about how Dr. Arias and his colleagues are addressing this international crisis by clicking on the video above.

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Infectious Disease Research