Averting an antibiotics apocalypse: major funding announced to tackle resistance to antibiotics

A cross-disciplinary team from the Universities of Oxford, Ulster and UCL today announced major funding from EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to tackle the growing challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The new 5-year programme, “Beyond Antibiotics,” will start in October 2021 and bring together researchers from across the Physical and Life Sciences to develop new technology to improve both the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial infections.

The 2019 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on AMR identifies it as “one of the greatest threats we face as a global community.” The evolution of drug-resistant bacteria, our over-use of antibiotics, and failure to develop new methods for tackling infection could leave us without viable treatments for even the most trivial infections within the next 3 decades. It is estimated that drug-resistant infections could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and an annual economic cost of £69 trillion.

Despite tremendous advances in understanding the biological mechanisms of AMR, there is an urgent need to develop better diagnostics and alternative treatment options

Professor Eleanor Stride, the statutory Professor of Biomaterials at the University of Oxford who is leading the collaboration, said: ‘Despite tremendous advances in understanding the biological mechanisms of AMR, there is an urgent need to develop better diagnostics and alternative treatment options.

‘Our aim is to complement ongoing efforts in drug discovery and microbiology with an equal contribution from the Engineering and Physical Sciences to meet this need.’

The overall goal of the programme is to provide a set of commercially viable and effective technologies to address the need for transformative innovation as set out in the recent United Nations Call-for-innovation. The key deliverables will be:

1. Prototypes for a treatment screening platform to enable high throughput testing of new therapies and accelerate their translation.

2. Prototype point-of-care diagnostic devices for both medical and agricultural use to reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics.

3. Pre-clinical efficacy data for new therapies in critical infections.

The academic team combines:

· Biomedical Engineers specialising in stimuli responsive drug delivery and “drug-free” therapies (Prof. Eleanor Stride, Prof. Constantin Coussios and Prof. Robin Cleveland, University of Oxford) and biomimetic microfluidic systems for testing of novel therapies (Dr. Dario Carugo, UCL),

· Chemists & Pharmaceutical Scientists developing new antimicrobial drugs and methods for targeted delivery (Profs. John Callan and Anthony McHale, University of Ulster; Prof. Robert Carlisle, University of Oxford),

· Microbiology (Dr. Jennifer Rohn, UCL),

· Immunology (Prof. Fiona Powrie, Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology),

· Microscopy (Dr. Tanmay Bharat, Dunn School of Pathology) for probing the mechanisms of infection and rapid diagnosis.

The team will also collaborate closely with clinicians specialising in infections representing the highest use of antibiotics and key partners from the pharmaceutical, medical device and agricultural industries, and public health agencies.

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said: ‘Technologies and approaches pioneered by UK researchers have the potential to revolutionise treatment for a wide range of conditions, from bowel cancer to diabetes. The projects announced today exemplify this potential and may play a key role in improving the lives of millions of people.’

Dr Jennifer Rohn (UCL Division of Medicine) said: ‘The COVID pandemic has overshadowed the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has been accelerating dangerously for generations and which threatens to wreak immense human suffering if not checked. We are very grateful to the EPSRC for supporting our efforts to tackle this crisis in a completely novel way.’

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