As you are probably well aware, animal antibiotic use on farms is firmly in the crosshairs of Congress. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA), reintroduction of “The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act,” otherwise known as PAMTA earlier this month, mirrors a bill introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY). The measures aim to address "the rampant overuse of antibiotics in agriculture that creates drug-resistant bacteria, an increasing threat to human beings," according to a recent report in Food Safety News.

But what about the human connection to bacterial resistance? And what can animal agriculture learn from advances on the people side of the resistance equation?

A new research paper that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences aims to answer whether the current strategy for medicating patients giving many drug-resistant diseases a big competitive advantage.

The paper argues for new research efforts to discover effective ways for managing the evolution and slowing the spread of drug-resistant disease organisms. The ultimate goal of this new research effort is to develop a new science-based model for drug-resistance management that will inform treatment guidelines for a wide variety of diseases that affect people, including malaria and other diseases caused by parasites, MRSA and other diseases caused by bacterial infections, AIDS and other diseases caused by viruses, and cancer.

The research paper, led by Andrew Read, professor of biology and entomology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University, reported his lab's recent work on the effect of various medication strategies in groups of malaria-infected mice.

"Our results indicate that the current strategy of aggressive use of medications to eliminate all targeted disease pathogens paradoxically gives drug-resistant pathogens the greatest possible evolutionary advantage," Read said in a statement released by Penn State University. "This universally accepted strategy -- which has been the orthodox approach for many decades – may actually promote the proliferation of drug-resistant forms of infectious diseases."

The question, said Read, is whether there are ways of treating patients that are equally good at making the patient healthy but give resistant parasites less of an advantage. Read is not arguing for changes in policy or for changes in doctor or patient behavior, but rather for the need for an improved knowledge base.

"At the moment, we just don't know which strategies are best for which diseases in which situations, but the result of our acceptance of the current medication strategy is that we have not taken a sufficiently hard look at its scientific validity,” he noted. “We are paying an increasingly high price in the health of individual people as well as of entire societies, which is why my lab and others are working to develop more powerful evolutionary-management strategies to limit the evolution and spread of drug-resistant diseases."

 The payoff could well be huge for the long-term health of people and animals alike.