New 'Miracle' Antibiotic: But For How Long?

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In the epic struggle of man against microbe, scientists have won the latest battle, but it remains to be seen which side will win the war. On Tuesday, Pharmacia-Upjohn received FDA approval for the first completely new type of antibiotic in more than 35 years. The medication comes as a welcome weapon in the war on "superbugs," mutated bacteria that, over the generations, have grown immune to the old-standby antibiotics. The new drug, Zyvox, is not a cure-all — it attacks only certain forms of bacteria — but in tests it cured two thirds of the patients with strains of staph that are immune to the strongest antibiotics currently available. But although there is hope that Zyvox can put a halt to the mutation process — by blocking growth much earlier in the bacteria's life cycle, it works in a different way than its predecessors — medical experts are taking the news with a grain of salt. "The truth is we don't know who'll win the race," says TIME science reporter Janice Horowitz. "Will we be able to stay ahead of the bacteria, or will they mutate to be stronger than anything we can produce?"

Of course, any future mutations, which could take several human generations to occur, are of little concern to the thousands of Americans who currently succumb to superbugs each year. "Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem both in nursing homes and in hospitals, where people's immune systems tend to be compromised to begin with," notes Horowitz. "And the pharmaceutical companies have many more antibiotics in development. It's a huge market where companies can make a lot of money."