Don’t let the superbugs bite

But don't despair - we might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

Evolution continues to be a bitch. Recently scientists gathered in Kensington, London, to have a good moan and to plan what can be done about it. “Superbugs and Superdrugs” is a great title for a meeting. Unfortunately the bugs seem to be more super than the drugs.

While that meeting went on, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning that we are entering a “nightmare” era. The CDC’s problem is a killer bacterium known as CRE, which is spreading in the US. Some strains of CRE are not only resistant to all antibiotics; they are also passing on that resistance to other bacteria, creating drug-resistant strains of E coli, for instance. On 11 March, Sally Davies, the UK government’s chief medical officer, asked the government to add the superbug problem to its “strategic risk register”, which highlights potentially catastrophic threats to the UK.

For a while, it all looked so good. When scientists discovered penicillin, then ever more weapons for our antibiotic arsenal, it seemed that bacteria had been defeated. The problem is, they fought back.

For all the worry over CRE, perhaps nowhere is this antibiotic resistance more evident than with tuberculosis. In the west, we won the war on TB so convincingly that receiving the BCG vaccine against it – once a waymark in British childhood – is no longer routine. Only in certain inner-city communities where migrant populations increase the likelihood of encountering the TB bacterium are children routinely immunised. However, in 2011, the World Health Organisation marked London out as the city with the highest TB infection rate in western Europe.

Many resistant bacteria originate in hospitals, where pharmaceutical regimes kill off the normal strains, making space in which bacteria that are naturally resistant can proliferate. Yet you can’t always blame the drugs. Research published at the end of February shows that drug resistance can arise even when the bacteria have never encountered a chemical meant to kill them.

In the study, E coli bacteria were made to suffer by exposing them to heat and restricting the nutrients in their environment. According to conventional wisdom, this should have kept proliferation in check – but it caused a spontaneous mutation that made the E coli resistant to rifampicin, one of the weapons in our antibiotic arsenal. What is worse is the observation that there was good reason for this mutation to arise: it made the stressful conditions more survivable. Bacteria with the mutation grew much faster.

Bacteria are survivors – if they can’t magic up a spontaneous mutation, they’ll pick one up in the street. A sampling of puddles in New Delhi showed that almost a third contain the genetic material that allows bacteria to produce an enzyme that destroys a swath of antibiotics. The NDM-1 gene is particularly evil. Its tricks include forcing itself into gut bacteria such as E coli that are incorporated into faeces; as a result, the resistant strains travel between hosts with ease.

Many infections involving a bacterium carrying NDM-1 are untreatable. GlaxoSmithKline is reportedly developing a drug to deal with it but it is years behind the curve. In the autumn, an EU project to mine the seabed for so far undiscovered antibiotics will start up, but it will take years for that, too, to bear fruit.

Let’s end on a positive note. Superbugs might be evolving in fiendish ways but they’re doing it blind and they’re up against evolution’s greatest invention – the human brain. We might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

The EHEC bacteria. Image: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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How virtual reality pigs could change the justice system forever

Lawyers in Canda are aiming to defend their client by asking the judge to don a virtual reality headset and experience the life of a pig.

“These are not humans, you dumb frickin' broad.”

Those were the words truck driver Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf said to animal rights activist Anita Krajnc on 22 June 2015 as she gave water to some of the 190 pigs in his slaughterhouse-bound truck. This week, 49-year-old Kranjc appeared at the Ontario Court of Justice charged with mischief for the deed, which she argues was an act of compassion for the overheated animals. To prove this, her lawyers hope to show a virtual reality video of a slaughterhouse to the judge, David Harris. Pigs might not be humans, but humans are about to become pigs.

“The tack that we’ve taken recognises that Anita hasn’t done anything wrong,” said one of her lawyers, James Silver. Along with testimony from environmental and animal welfare experts, her defence hope the virtual reality experience, which is planned for when the trial resumes in October, will allow Harris to understand Kranjc’s point of view. Via the pigs’ point of view.

It’s safe to say that the simulated experience of being a pig in a slaughterhouse will not be a pleasant one. iAnimal, an immersive VR video about the lives of farm animals, launched earlier this year and has already changed attitudes towards meat. But whether or not Harris becomes a vegetarian after the trial is not the most pressing aspect of this case. If the lawyers get their wish to bring a VR headset into the courtroom, they will make legal history.

“Virtual reality is a logical progression from the existing ways in which technology is used to illustrate and present evidence in court,” says Graham Smith, a technology lawyer and partner at the international law firm Bird & Bird.

“Graphics, charts, visualisations, simulations and reconstructions, data-augmented video and other technology tools are already used to assist courts in understanding complex data and sequences of events.”

Researchers have already been looking into the ways VR can be used in courts, with particular focus on recreating crime scenes. In May, Staffordshire University launched a project that aims to “transport” jurors into virtual crime scenes, whilst in 2014 researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland created a 3D reconstruction of a shooting, including the trajectory of a bullet. Although this will help bring to life complex evidence that might be hard to understand or picture in context, the use of VR in this way is not without its flaws.

“Whether a particular aid should be admitted into evidence can give rise to argument, especially in criminal trials involving a jury,” says Smith. “Does the reconstruction incorporate factual assumptions or inferences that are in dispute, perhaps based on expert evidence? Does the reconstruction fairly represent the underlying materials? Is the data at all coloured by the particular way in which it is presented? 

“Would immersion aid a jury's understanding of the events or could it have a prejudicial impact? At its core, would VR in a particular case add to or detract from the court's ability objectively to assess the evidence?”

The potential for bias is worrying, especially if the VR video was constructed from witness testimony, not CCTV footage or other quantitative data. To avoid bias, feasibly both the defence and prosecution could recreate an event from different perspectives. If the jury or judge experience the life of a distressed pig on its way to be slaughtered, should they also be immersed in the life of a sweaty trucker, just trying to do his job and panicked by a protester feeding his pigs an unknown substance from a bottle?

“These are not new debates,” says Smith. “Lawyers are used to tackling these kinds of issues with the current generation of illustrative aids. Before too long they will find themselves doing so with immersive VR.”

It seems safe to trust, then, that legal professionals will readily come up with failsafe guidelines for the use of VR in order to avoid prejudice or bias. But beyond legal concerns, there is another issue: ethics.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Leicester discovered that jurors face trauma due to their exposure to harrowing evidence. “The research confirms that jury service, particularly for crimes against people, can cause significant anxiety, and for a vulnerable minority it can lead to severe clinical levels of stress or the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder,” they wrote.

It’s easy to see how this trauma could be exacerbated by being virtually transported to a scene and watching a crime play out before your eyes. Gamers have already spoken about panic attacks as a result of VR horror games, with Denny Unger, creative director of Cloudhead Games, speculating they could cause heart attacks. A virtual reality murder, however virtual, is still real, and could easily cause similar distress.

Then there is the matter of which crimes get the VR treatment. Would courts allow the jury to be immersed in a VR rape? Despite how harrowing and farfetched that sounds, a virtual reality sexual assault was already screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For now, legal professionals have time to consider these issues. By October, Kranjc’s lawyers may or may not have been allowed to use VR in court. If they are, they may change legal history. If they’re not, Kranjc may be found guilty, and faces six months in jail or a $5,000 fine. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.