Many superbugs thought to be resistant to antibiotics could actually be treated, scientists now believe.
Laboratory trials have revealed some bugs considered unresponsive to the drugs may just be resilient.
Researchers now hope they can create tests to spot the infections that respond to antibiotics but eventually regain power.
This would allow doctors to target the bug at its weakest point – and prevent them from unnecessary doling out more antibiotics.
The findings, made by a team of experts at Duke University in North Carolina, have been branded ‘extremely important’.
Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously warned if nothing is done the world is heading for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.
The difference of resilient and resistant superbugs has not been shown before, according to one of the researchers.
Professor Lingchong You, one of the study authors, said ‘this distinction could become extremely important’.
The study, led by Dr Hannah Meredith, analysed several superbugs over time when exposed to antibiotics such as penicillin.
The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, showed some strains of bacteria are resistant and can soldier through antibiotics unaffected.
Resilient strains, however, suffer a sharp population crash before they are able to fight back against beta-lactam antibiotics.
They are soon able to tolerate the drug by producing enough chemicals called beta-lactamases, which degrade the antibiotics.
The authors said survival can occur because individual cells withstand the treatment – which they branded resistance.
Or bugs can survive because the population recovers from the initial disturbance, which they dubbed resilience.
Professor You said: ‘We’re still in a stage where doctors don’t do a detailed diagnosis of what specific infection a patient is suffering from.
‘They just prescribe these antibiotics because they’ll probably work after two weeks. And if they don’t, they’ll just try a different one.
‘But I think as these beta-lactam-resistant strains continue to spread around the world and become more common, our diagnoses will have to catch up so we can provide more tailored dosing protocols.’
The researchers are now hoping to create a test to spot whether an infection is actually resistant.
Currently, most clinicians test a bug by dosing a culture and checking the end results, meaning they would miss the difference.
Figures estimate that superbugs will kill 10 million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.
Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.