Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today, but with the collective might of scientists across the globe, we can fight back – and that is exactly what UK researchers are doing. From social sciences to the arts, pioneering research is helping us to confront the problem from all sides and move towards tangible solutions.
The UK’s research councils are at the very core of efforts to overcome antimicrobial resistance. The cross-council initiative on AMR has been set up to develop collaborative approaches across disciplines, and there is a vast range of research taking place in the field.
Whether it’s state-of-the-art computer simulations of spreading infections or cutting-edge diagnosis technology, the UK is at the forefront of efforts to combat drug resistance.
We can only defend ourselves from AMR if we know what we’re up against. That’s why scientists from IBM Research and the STFC Hartree Centre are exploiting the high performance computing and data analytics research facility housed in the Hartree Centre to explore the molecular mechanisms behind antibiotic action.
This interdisciplinary research team seeks to bring down the time and cost required to develop new active drug compounds. By melding biological approaches with physics, maths and computer science, the team hope to pick apart complex molecular processes and to use this information to create pioneering designs for future antimicrobials.
River Routes to Resistance
As well as understanding the microscopic processes behind the problem, we also need to explore the development of resistance on a larger scale. Thanks to research supported by NERC, we now know that rivers and streams could be a major source of AMR in the environment.
A study of the Thames, conducted by scientists from Warwick, CEH Wallingford and Exeter, scrutinised 69 separate areas of the river and discovered higher levels of drug-resistant bacteria near some waste water treatment works.
Increasingly large quantities of antibiotics escape into our waterways as run off from both human and agricultural use. But thanks to the NERC research, we now have a model for assessing the levels of drug resistant bugs in our rivers and streams, providing a vital early step towards counteracting the problem.
Waterways are by no means the only source of resistant bacteria. One of the most discussed issues in the AMR crisis is the usage of antibiotics in agriculture. Since the 1950’s, animal feed in Europe has contained traces of these drugs. The idea is that livestock is pre-emptively protected from infection by ingesting antibiotics on a regular basis.
But the more we use antibiotics, the less effective they become. The widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture has led to increased rates of resistant bacteria, the question is: what sort of effect does that on humans?
Funded by BBSRC, MRC and NERC, researchers from the University of Bristol are looking into the ways in which AMR bacteria in cattle could cause resistance in humans. It’s hoped that, in time, the research will help to shed light on this complex issue.
A Global Policy Perspective
AMR is a truly global challenge, and policymaking plays a vital role in shaping the different approaches to AMR around the world. That’s why ESRC are supporting research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine into AMR policy in Pakistan.
Co-funded by BBSRC and MRC, the work focusses on the role of policymaker’s perceptions in shaping the wider approach to AMR. Researchers will look at a variety of social issues, including how AMR policy can be social constructed or influenced by other factors, such as power relations and various contextual issues. In the long term, the research seeks to impact on policymaking initiatives in low and middle income countries, helping to develop responses for responsible antimicrobial use.
High-Tech Clinical Tools
Medical staff are a crucial link in the chain when it comes to preventing AMR, and hospital associated infections constitute some of the world’s most serious superbugs. To counteract this issue, an AHRC-funded project has developed a training tool to support infection prevention and control of healthcare associated infections.
VisionOn is an interactive tablet-based tool that uses visualisation methods to help hospital staff ‘see’ the location, survival and transmission of pathogens. In trials, the tool was found to enhance workers’ awareness and understanding of how pathogens spread, and how hospital procedures can limit this risk. Good news if we want to keep hospital bugs at a minimum.
When someone becomes ill, we have no easy way of telling whether or not they’re infected with an easily-treatable strain of pathogen or a so-called ‘superbug’. Currently, if a clinician suspects that their patient is infected with a superbug, they have to send it off for laboratory analysis. This can take up to three days, during which time the infection can develop and worsen.
But EPSRC-supported scientists are developing a device which can detect drug-resistant bugs, and influenza in just three hours. The device, called Genalysis, uses samples from patients’ DNA to quickly diagnose the infection, allowing clinicians to respond quickly and provide their patients with the right course of treatment.
The Hunt for New Antibiotics
The rate of research into antimicrobials has accelerated in recent years, and a number of antibiotic innovations now appear to show promise. Supported by Innovate UK, Discuva is a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company partnered with the Swiss healthcare company Roche.
Discuva uses high-throughput techniques, testing many samples in a short space of time in order to quickly identify potential compounds for future use. The company also makes use of computer search algorithms and DNA sequencing in order to find promising compounds. The support from Innovate UK is helping Discuva to develop their business and bring new compounds to the market.
Outbreaks of methicillin-resistant S. aureus, or MRSA, aren’t isolated to hospitals anymore – new MRC-funded research suggests the superbug is also circulating in the community from people’s homes to elderly care facilities.
MRC-funded scientists from the University of Cambridge published a database of whole genome sequencing data for Staphylococcus aureus bacterial samples, including MRSA. The database is a key resource because it documents superbug outbreaks in the UK and Ireland. After sequencing the genetic code for MRSA samples, scientists now better understand how often and where outbreaks are occurring, and can determine which strain of the bacteria is behind a given outbreak.
The UK is a world-leader in AMR research, supporting a huge variety of research in the field. This is a complex problem, which requires complex solutions, and the multifaceted nature of UK research reflects this.
There’s no single magic bullet when it comes to resistance, and we’ll need to draw on the efforts of policy-makers, clinician and individuals if we want to see profound, long-term improvement. But one thing is for sure: if we’re to overcome the challenges posed by AMR, we’ll need a unified approach that draws on an array of innovative and pioneering research.