Recent cases of a multidrug resistant “superbug” know as CRE at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center are making national headlines.

CRE means carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, which some Klebsiella and E. coli species are examples of. In the current outbreak at UCLA, nearly 200 patients were possibly exposed to CRE during a particular surgical procedure, five patients are infected, and two patients have died.

Previous notable outbreaks of other superbugs have included MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus); VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This alphabet soup of bacterial superbugs are joined by numerous additional strains with less notoriety that have been reported in severe and often fatal infections and outbreaks.

This cluster of cases at UCLA is not the first CRE outbreak in the United States; in fact, their incidence is growing steadily. CRE mostly occurs in patients who are already hospitalized or are in nursing homes, and can contribute to death in up to 50 percent of those who become infected.

It is estimated that over 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths are caused by CRE or similar antibiotic-resistant bacteria annually in the U.S., and these numbers are expected to increase dramatically in the coming years. Many of these are health care-associated infections, meaning they are transmitted while a patient is hospitalized or in a nursing home or other health care facility.

With treatment options for these infections becoming increasingly limited, antibiotic resistance is considered to be a major public health priority. It is also clear that multiple innovative approaches to these infections are needed. Many such innovations are being developed by universities, including right here in Maine at the University of New England.

As a health and sciences university, UNE is addressing antibiotic resistance in several ways.

n First, our laboratory scientists are researching new ways to rapidly detect antibiotic resistance and new therapies for such infections. This combination of bench and translational research is providing tools for health care providers so they can diagnose and start appropriate treatment within an hour or so, rather then the current time-frame of several days.

This project, a collaboration between UNE and Indiana University, is expected to be used as a basis for a larger-scale, multimillion-dollar research program involving multiple hospitals and thousands of patients. This will not only bring new scientific funding to Maine, but it will also create research jobs and opportunities for our patients to take advantage of new testing procedures prior to their widespread availability.

n Second, our medical students assist in this research. Across UNE’s campuses and clinical sites, students in all of our health professions programs are involved in original research projects. This in turn teaches tomorrow’s primary care physicians and other health care providers their role in developing new knowledge, something that is especially important in this era of continuously evolving science. Students exposed to research are likely to seek out cutting-edge treatments and diagnostic strategies in their careers as practicing health care providers.

n Third, UNE health professions students, including medical students, are educated and trained to become effective members of interprofessional health care teams. Studies show that the underlying causes of the transmission of health care-associated infections, such as many of the antibiotic resistant infections, and other medical errors, are most often poor teamwork – i.e., ineffective communication, coordination and collaboration among members of health care teams.

The Institute of Medicine and others recommend interprofessional education, the training of health practitioners and students in how to be effective team members with those from other health professions, as a major strategy to reduce the transmission of these infections and other medical errors. With such infections and errors estimated to be a leading cause of death in this country, UNE’s nationally recognized interprofessional education is on the cutting edge of addressing these underlying causes.

As a health and sciences university grounded in the liberal arts, as the largest educator of physicians and other health professionals in Maine, as well as a leader in translational microbiology research, UNE is a private university with a public mission that is using multiple and innovative approaches to make a difference in the fight against infections with superbugs, and ultimately a difference in the health of Maine people.