There were brickbats a-plenty for big pharma at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases meeting in Milan, Italy, with drugmakers being criticised for their poor performance in the antibiotics R&D field.

Giuseppe Cornaglia of Verona University and president of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, said that the pharmaceutical industry’s "dry pipeline" for new antibiotics to treat resistant Gram-negative infections was a real worry – particularly given the lack of anything on the five-to-ten year horizon.

He was also anxious about the "alarming" global spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, especially those carrying the recently-discovered NMD-1 (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase) gene which makes bacteria highly resistant to almost all known antibiotics.

This development, Prof Cornaglia said, threatens to turn back the clock on years of progress following the discovery of antimicrobials. “We have been concerned for more than ten years that antibiotic resistance is reaching unprecedented and worrying levels.”

NDM-1 is one of several 'superbugs', since this resistant trait confers resistance to carbapenem antibiotics – powerful weapons against hard-to-treat infections. First detected three years ago in Sweden in a patient treated in India, NDM-1 has now spread around the world with cases being detected in particular in the Indian subcontinent, as well as the UK, continental Europe, North America, Australia and the Far East.

Antibiotic nanosensor

Faced with the current shortage of new antibiotics, Joseph Ndieyira and colleagues at the London Centre for Nanotechnology (UCL & Imperial College, London) are developing a nanosensor that they said at the ECCMID meeting makes better use of existing drugs.

Their novel point-of-care nanosensor measures ‘real-time’ bloodstream antibiotic concentration and how well the drug latches onto bacteria. This could mean that patients might one day be given a personalised course of antibiotics that is optimal for their body, thereby helping reduce risk of drug resistance.