Antibiotic-resistant superbugs pose a major health risk to people around the globe, but tracking the development of these microorganisms just became easier, with the help of supercomputers. These powerful tools are now being employed to predict how the disease-causing bodies will evolve, developing new arrays of natural defenses against drugs.

Urinary tract infections (UTI's), pneumonia, and several other disorders that were once easily treated with antibiotics are now more challenging for healthcare workers, due to drug resistance.

New drugs would need to be designed in order to most-effectively treat bacterial diseases. However, evolution will eventually drive bacteria to evolve defenses to new lines of treatment. Physicians, therefore, need to find methods of lengthening the effective lifespan of new medicines.

Duke University researchers developed a new computer program which allows operators to predict how superbugs could change their genetic code, becoming more resistant to drugs.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one of the best-known and common of all superbugs. Developers of the new model used the system to track the evolution of MRSA against a new treatment designed to fight the bacteria.

Using the model, researchers hypothesized that once MRSA encountered the drug, two varieties of the bacteria would develop. When they carried out the experiment, investigators found the organisms reacted exactly as the model predicted.

"Although doctors and researchers recognize the need to optimize treatments, no one has come up with a standard method to design the best antibiotic regimen, given a particular antibiotic and specific infecting bacteria," Hannah Meredith, a graduate student at Duke University, said.

Meredith and her team of researchers at Duke are studying samples of common infectious bacteria, developing a database for future investigations.

Superbugs could soon be responsible to 10 million deaths each year around the world, according to a new study by the government of Britain. If predictions are correct, these fatalities could surpass cancer as a leading cause of death in the coming decades.

The ability to accurately model changes in bacteria when presented with new antibiotics could lead to more effective treatments, presenting minimal side effects to patients.

Increased drug resistance in bacteria could become a leading cause of death in the coming decades, as modern medicine becomes ineffective against many diseases.

"Antibiotic resistance threatens mankind with the prospect of a return to the pre-antibiotic era" a 1998 report from England's House of Lords concluded.

Development of the new computer software to predict the evolution of superbugs was profiled in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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