Research is key weapon in tackling antibiotic resistance

Posted on 30th July 2014

Research at the European Centre for Environment  & Human Health is part of an unprecedented cross council collaboration to tackle the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.

For the first time, all seven UK research councils have come together to co-ordinate the work of environmental scientists, medical researchers, biologists, engineers, vets, economists, social scientists, mathematicians and even designers, in a targeted effort to address the issue of drug resistant bacteria.

With funding from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council and AstraZeneca, a team led by one of the Medical School’s specialists in microbiology, Dr William Gaze, is playing a crucial role in the effort.

The group are investigating whether the low levels of antibiotics in the environment, from both humans and animals, could be contributing to antimicrobial resistance. The research is hoping to determine the minimum amount of antibiotic required to promote resistance, and to develop new tests so that impacts of environmental antibiotics can be monitored.

Dr William Gaze said:

“The Science & Technology Committee recently recognised that we urgently need more information on environmental drivers of antimicrobial resistance. Our research is working to fill the worrying gaps in our understanding of how antimicrobial resistance exists and may be transmitted via environmental routes.”

Another of the team’s studies, funded by the European Regional Development Fund, is analysing seawater from beaches and rivers to assess the risk swimmers, surfers and other beach users face from exposure to resistant bacteria. With preliminary results suggesting that England’s coastal waters can contain significant numbers of bacteria carrying antibiotic resistance genes, Dr Gaze is now hoping to identify the sources of contamination and propose measures to reduce any risks.

The collaborative funding initiative is being led by the Medical Research Council (MRC), who has calculated that in the UK alone £275m has been spent on researching the problem since 2007. Yet, to date, no effective solutions have been found and it has been estimated that current antibiotics will be all but useless within the next two decades.

The problem also extends beyond human health into animals, with livestock increasingly being infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The funding programme will work to identify common characteristics of antibiotic resistance in both people and in farm and wild animals, and to find new drugs in a pipeline that has all but dried up.

At the same time, scientists will investigate how to track the extent of antimicrobial resistance in different environments – in the sea, rivers, air, soil and in organisms, as well as in food, homes and hospitals.

Science minister, Greg Clark, said:

“This unique collaboration involving all seven research councils will help to drive forward important advances in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. The united strategy announced today will provide a more co-ordinated approach to research gathering by bringing together leading cross-industry experts against what is one of today’s greatest scientific problems.”

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