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A Very Scary Gene

Urinary tract infections, pneumonia and other common ailments caused by germs that carry a new gene with the power to destroy antibiotics are intensifying fears of a fresh generation of so-called superbugs.

The gene, NDM-1, which is apparently widespread in parts of India, has been identified in just three U.S. patients, all of whom had received treatment in India and recovered. But the gene's ability to affect different bacteria and make them resistant to many medications marks a worrying development in the fight against infectious diseases, which can mutate to defeat humans' antibiotic arsenal.

"The problem thus far seems fairly small, but the potential is enormous. This is in some ways our worst nightmare," said Brad Spellberg, an infectious-disease specialist at LA Biomed (the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center) and author of "Rising Plague," a book about antibiotic resistance. "You take very common bacteria that live in all of us and can travel from person to person, and you introduce into it some of the nastiest antibiotic-resistance mechanisms there are."

The bacteria, which include previously unseen strains of E. coli and other common pathogens, appear to have evolved in India, where poor sanitation combines with cheap, widely available antibiotics to create a fertile environment for breeding new microorganisms.

The infections were then carried to the United States, Britain and more than a half-dozen other countries, often through "medical tourism," which involves foreigners seeking less expensive, more easily accessible surgery overseas.

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