UK research councils unite to tackle anti-microbial resistance

The initiative will take a multi-pronged approach to address all aspects of the problem

The UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) is to lead a cross-council initiative backed by eight government bodies and the Wellcome Trust to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

For the first time, all seven UK research councils will collaborate on the ever-growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. The initiative will co-ordinate the work of medical researchers, biologists, engineers, vets, economists, social scientists, mathematicians and designers, in a multi-pronged approach to address all aspects of the problem.

The MRC, which will lead the initiative, has calculated that in the UK alone £275m has been spent on researching the problem since 2007. Yet, to date, no effective solutions have been found and it has been estimated that current antibiotics will be all but useless within the next two decades.

The Science and Technology Committee report on antimicrobials, published on 7 July, said that collaboration between different areas of research is paramount in tackling AMR.

The problem of AMR extends beyond human health, the MRC said. Animals, particularly livestock, are increasingly being infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria are found in varied environments – from fields and rivers to hospitals or the kitchen sink but little is known about how human and animal AMR are related. The initiative will work to identify common characteristics of AMR in both humans and in farm and wild animals to find new drugs.

This is about tackling the problem at every level and in every environment

Scientists will also be investigating how to track the extent of AMR in different environments (the sea, rivers, air, soil and in organisms, as well as in food, homes and hospitals.) Researchers funded by the Natural Environment Research Council have revealed the first finding of an imipenam-resistant E. coli in a UK river, a broad spectrum antibiotic that is often used when other antibiotics do not work.

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the MRC, said: 'Researchers have been waging a war on AMR for decades but up until now we’ve had no war cabinet to co-ordinate research on all fronts. 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. One hundred years ago 25% of all deaths were due to bacterial infection. We cannot return to those days.'

The MRC held workshops in 2013 to identify key research priorities. These have been grouped into four separate themes and two calls for research proposals are now open – the deadline is 2 September.

The themes are:

  • Understanding resistant bacteria in the context of the host. Covering both human and animal bacteria, it will encompass understanding of resistance from genomic, through to cellular and host pathogen interaction. It will aim to deliver new targets for potential treatments, ways of predicting and influencing the evolution of resistance and targets for diagnosing bacterial types, virulence and resistance;
  • Accelerating therapeutic and diagnostics development. Addressing the development of new (and revisiting of old) small molecule antibiotics and delivery strategies. Development of new non-small molecule based treatments to avoid resistance altogether and the diagnostics to target all of these therapies including rapid point of care diagnostics;
  • Understanding the real world interactions. It is clear that the environment and the way people and communities interact with the environment hugely influences the way bacteria behave and the transmission of genes within and between bacterial species; and
  • Behaviour within and beyond the healthcare setting. This theme will aim to elucidate the underpinning motivations for human behaviours relating to AMR, and how behaviour can affect development and spread of antibacterial resistance. It will also explore how to best enable effective behaviour change interventions in a variety of settings, relevant to both humans and animals. It may also serve as the basis for research into the economics of AMR.