A minor-league pitcher in his younger days, Richard Armbruster kept playing baseball recreationally into his 70s, until his right hip started bothering him. Last February he went to a St. Louis hospital for what was to be a routine hip replacement.
Not until the day Mr. Armbruster died did a laboratory culture identify the organism that had infected him: Acinetobacter baumannii.
The germ is one of a category of bacteria that by some estimates are already killing tens of thousands of hospital patients each year. While the organisms do not receive as much attention as the one known as MRSA — for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — some infectious-disease specialists say they could emerge as a bigger threat.
That is because there are several drugs, including some approved in the last few years, that can treat MRSA. But for a combination of business reasons and scientific challenges, the pharmaceuticals industry is pursuing very few drugs for Acinetobacter and other organisms of its type, known as Gram-negative bacteria. Meanwhile, the germs are evolving and becoming ever more immune to existing antibiotics.
"In many respects it's far worse than MRSA," said Dr. Louis B. Rice, an infectious-disease specialist at the Louis Stokes Cleveland V.A. Medical Center and at Case Western Reserve University. "There are strains out there, and they are becoming more and more common, that are resistant to virtually every antibiotic we have."