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.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principle Geotechnical Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup