Antibiotic-resistant bacteria — also called “superbugs” — have become one of the most pressing concerns throughout the health care industry in 2013. They threaten to reverse centuries of medical progress, bringing forth previously eradicated diseases. One of the latest superbugs to be identified is a strain of Escherichia coli, or E. coli, that has been implicated in as many as 1.5 million urinary tract infections (UTIs) and tens of thousands of deaths.

UTIs are typically caused by E. coli, which infects some or all parts of urinary system, including the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Symptoms include persistent urges to urinate, burning sensations during urination, and sometimes bloody urine, according to Mayo Clinic. The infection is typically treated with antibiotics, and symptoms subside within a few days.

The newly discovered strain of E. coli, H30-Rx, however, is resistant to many of the antibiotics used to fight off infection. Because these treatments have no effect, the bacteria easily spreads from the bladder to the kidneys, and then into the bloodstream, where it can become a life-threatening infection, known as septicemia. “This strain of E. coli spreads from person to person and seems to be particularly virulent,” James R. Johnson, of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Minnesota, said in a press release.

In the study, published in the journal mBio, the researchers describe the process by which they identified H30-Rx. Using advanced genomic techniques, they were able to trace the strain back to another strain called H30, which, about 20 years ago, developed two gene mutations. These mutations produced a clone, H30-R, which was resistant to the breakthrough antibiotic Cipro. H30-R then mutated again into H30-Rx, furthering its ability to be drug-resistant to not only Cipro but many others as well.

“With the widespread presence of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, it is making infections more difficult to treat and is leading to increased mortality,” Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chied of Robotic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay. Although Dr. Samadi wasn’t involved with the study, both him and the researchers note that the discovery of this single strain of E. coli could provide clues to developing a vaccine or new prevention strategies.

“We now know that we are dealing with a single enemy,” Evgeni Sokurenko, of the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-author of the study, said in the press release, “and that by focusing on this strain we can have a substantial impact on this worldwide epidemic.”

Source: Price L, Johnson J, Aziz M, et al. The Epidemic of Extended-Spectrum-β-Lactamase-Producing Escherichia coli ST131 Is Driven by a Single Highly Pathogenic Subclone, H30-Rx. mBio. 2013.