Cancer-causing superbug has become twice as hard to kill

Telegraph Reporters
The WHO describes superbugs as one of the biggest threats to the human race and names H. pylori as among the most dangerous - FABRIZIO BENSCH /Reuters

Antibiotic resistance to a superbug that causes cancer has more than doubled in just 20 years, according to new research.

The finding is based on drugs that treat Helicobacter pylori – a potentially deadly bacteria linked to peptic ulcers and the gastric tumour lymphoma.

Rates of resistance soared from just under ten per cent in 1998 to almost 22 per cent last year. Lead author Professor Francis Megraud described the trend as "alarming". His team looked at clarithromycin, levofloxacin and metronidazole – the major antimicrobials used to kill H. pylori.

In the first study of its kind, they analysed their effect on 1,232 patients from 18 countries across Europe. This included Ireland, which was among the locations where the therapies proved most impotent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has described superbugs as one of the biggest threats to the human race. It has named H. pylori among the most dangerous.

Prof Megraud, a microbiologist at the University of Bordeaux, France, said: "H. pylori infection is already a complex condition to treat, requiring a combination of medications.

"With resistance rates to commonly used antibiotics such as clarithromycin increasing at an alarming rate of nearly one per cent per year, treatment options for H. pylori will become progressively limited and ineffective if  novel treatment strategies remain undeveloped.

"The reduced efficacy of current therapies could maintain the high incidence rates of gastric cancer and other conditions such as peptic ulcer  disease, if drug resistance continues to increase at this pace."

H. pylori is one of the most common infections, present in up to one in two people. It can cause inflammation of the stomach lining, or gastritis, leading to peptic ulcers. The condition affects up to one in 15 people  in the UK alone. 

The bacteria is also the most important risk factor for gastric cancer, also known as stomach cancer – the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide. In Britain, an estimated 6,700 cases of gastric cancer, also known as stomach cancer, are diagnosed each year, claiming around 4,400 lives  annually.

In Ireland, more than a quarter of patients (25.6 per cent) were resistant to clarithromycin, the main drug for the bacteria – compared to just one in  20 (five per cent) in Denmark.

UK data was not analysed as part of the research. Last year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned superbugs will be killing about 1.3 million people in Europe – including 90,000 in Britain – by 2050.

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