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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Employment Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little