UK research councils join forces in 'unprecedented move' to tackle rise of antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs'

It is the first time that all research councils have collaborated on one scientific topic

Science editor

All of the major scientific funding bodies in Britain are to collaborate on a joint research effort to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to end the era of modern medicine, it was announced today.

In an unprecedented move, all seven UK research councils – which are responsible for spending government money on scientific research – and the country’s biggest research charity, the Wellcome Trust, will join forces to tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance.

“Researchers have been waging a war on antimicrobial resistance for decades but up until now we’ve had no war cabinet to coordinate research on all fronts,” said Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, which is leading the initiative

The announcement follows the discovery in a British river of a pandemic strain of human gut bacteria that are resistant to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. The superbugs were found downstream from a sewage plant in the Midlands with the highest level of water treatment.

The scientists who made the discovery said that the presence of drug-resistant bacteria in British waterways which have come from the treated waste water of a modern sewage plant represents a serious threat to human health and is “a cause of great concern”.

An analysis of the widespread use of antibiotics in animals – both on farm livestock and domestic pets – and their release into the environment will be a key component of the new initiative, which will bring together medical scientists, vets, social scientists, engineers, ecologists, economists and designers.

“This is about tackling the problem at every level and in every environment, from labs to livestock, from finding new diagnostic tools to educating professionals and the public,” Sir John said.

“One hundred years ago, 25 per cent of all deaths were due to bacterial infection. We cannot return to those days,” he said.

It is the first time that all research councils have collaborated on one scientific topic and the unique collaboration is seen as a sign of how important the issue has now become for the medical and political establishment.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the world could be “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” where people die of relatively trivial and treatable infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, echoed the Prime Minister’s warning by saying that modern medicine “would quickly go out of the window” if scientists fail to develop new antibiotics to treat patients following surgery.

An initial £25 million will be spent setting up the joint effort, which will come from the existing science budget of the three largest research councils, while further funding is expected to be allocated in the coming years, said Des Walsh, head of infections and immunity at the MRC.

“We know this is a major health challenge coming at us and we wanted to unpick the scientific issues. The collaboration is about bringing together research communities who may not have worked together before,” Dr Walsh said.

“Antibiotics are globally widespread and so the potential for antimicrobial resistance is also widespread. The potential for producing resistant bacteria is so great that we often don’t know about it until it’s too late,” he said.

The initiative was due to be announced a few weeks ago but was held back until after the Cabinet re-shuffle. David Willetts, the former science minister, was a keen supporter of research into antimicrobial resistance and is believed to have encouraged the collaboration.

Greg Clark, the incoming science minister, said: “The united strategy announced today will provide a more coordinated approach to research gathering by bringing together leading cross-industry experts against what is one of today’s greatest scientific problems.”

Q | What is antimicrobial resistance?

A | This is when bacteria evolve genetically so that they cannot be killed by antibiotic drugs. The evolution or development of resistance is a natural reaction of the bacteria to a toxin (antibiotic) in their environment.

Q | Can antibiotic resistance be stopped?

A | It is difficult to stop it, but it can be slowed down. Only using antibiotics when they are really necessary, and making sure patients finish their course, are simple measures to limit the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes.

Q | How does resistance  happen?

A | Bacteria are constantly swapping genetic material between themselves. A gene mutation that confers resistance can quickly spread in a bacterial population exposed, but not killed outright, by a weak solution of antibiotics.

Q | What can be done?

A | We need new kinds of antibiotics as bacteria are developing resistance to existing drugs. This is not as easy as it sounds – no new antibiotics have been developed for several decades.

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