Mycobacterium abscessus: Environmental Bacterium Turned Clinical Nightmare

Rose C. Lopeman, James Harrison, Maya Desai, Jonathan A. G. Cox

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Mycobacteria are a large family of over 100 species, most of which do not cause diseases in humans. The majority of the mycobacterial species are referred to as nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), meaning they are not the causative agent of tuberculous (TB) or leprosy, i.e., Mycobacterium tuberculous complex and Mycobacterium leprae, respectively. The latter group is undoubtedly the most infamous, with TB infecting an estimated 10 million people and causing over 1.2 million deaths in 2017 alone TB and leprosy also differ from NTM in that they are only transmitted from person to person and have no environmental reservoir, whereas NTM infections are commonly acquired from the environment. It took until the 1950′s for NTM to be recognised as a potential lung pathogen in people with underlying pulmonary disease and another three decades for NTM to be widely regarded by the medical community when Mycobacterium avium complex was identified as the most common group of opportunistic pathogens in AIDS patients. This review focuses on an emerging NTM called Mycobacterium abscessus (M. abs). M. abs is a rapidly growing NTM that is responsible for opportunistic pulmonary infections in patients with structural lung disorders such as cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis, as well as a wide range of skin and soft tissue infections in humans. In this review, we discuss how we came to understand the pathogen, how it is currently treated and examine drug resistance mechanisms and novel treatments currently in development. We highlight the urgent need for new and effective treatments for M. abs infection as well as improved in vivo methods of efficacy testing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number90
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 22 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited


  • Antimicrobial drug discovery
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Mycobacterium abscessus
  • Non-tuberculous mycobacteria


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