From the Atlantic Ocean to our own backyards, our researchers have been hunting high and low for inspiration to help better understand and tackle superbugs.For World Antibiotic Awareness Week Jonathan Pearce, MRC’s Head of Infections and Immunity, highlights some of the remarkable interdisciplinary teams carrying out this fascinating research.
Today, more than ever, we’re aware of antibiotic resistance as a growing, global problem that desperately needs an answer. According to recent reports, by 2050 superbugs could kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined.
Petri dishes showing bacteria cultures.
Over the past five years alone, in partnership with the other UKRI councils, we’ve made huge efforts to better understand this threat and find solutions – together investing £44 million in 78 UK projects and £41 million in projects worldwide. Collaboration helps fire up imagination, insight and innovation. That’s why we’ve brought together researchers with different skills and experiences across the sciences, engineering, arts and humanities. [...]
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the most serious global threats to human health in the 21st century. One of the researchers taking on this challenge is Professor Matthew Avison of the University of Bristol who is leading the ‘One Health Drivers of Antibacterial Resistance in Thailand’ consortium project. Here, he tells us about the benefits of working together across borders and disciplines, and how the consortium’s approach can help inform AMR research worldwide.
The Thai authorities are monitoring the situation closely and the World Health Organisation recognises their surveillance as an exemplary model for other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). But the research to date has been in discrete areas.
Last month, our researchers channelled their creativity into a one-off UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Superheroes vs Superbugs night at the Science Museum in London. Over 1,000 people came to meet some of the superheroes taking on the fight against the global threat of antimicrobial resistance. Petra Kiviniemi reports.
Antibiotics underpin nearly every aspect of modern medicine, but ever-increasing numbers of pathogens are becoming resistant to our arsenal of drugs. So now researchers are working harder than ever to discover new ways to prevent and treat drug-resistant infections.
Scientists transported guests into the hidden world of bacteria, using virtual reality to shrink them down to the size of bacterial proteins.
The Science Museum currently plays host to Superbugs: The Fight for our lives. It’s an exhibition for anyone to visit and learn about the causes, consequences, and possible solutions for the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). [...]
Bacteria resistant to drugs are stopping us from treating infectious diseases and undermining medical advances. So what can we do about it? ThisWHO Antibiotic Awareness WeekDrJonathan Pearce, Head of Infections and Immunity at the MRC, explains why understanding how resistance develops and spreads is key to tackling antibiotic resistance. And how using this knowledge, we can find creative new ways of preventing and treating infections.
Enterobacteria grown on a selective agar plate.
Antibiotic resistance is now recognised as one of the most serious threats to human health, spreading across national boundaries. It arises from a complex interplay between biomedical, animal, social, cultural and environmental factors. If we are to meet this challenge, we need to take both an international and interdisciplinary approach. [...]
To improve the outlook for patients with life-threatening fungal disease, we need a coordinated approach to tackle the infections. That’s why we set up the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology (MRC CMM) with the University of Aberdeen last year. Here Masters students Joanne Calley, Emily Speakman, Catherine Mark and Alexander Currie share five reasons why they chose to study fungi and are excited to be working at the forefront of fungal diseases research.
Fluorescent stain of zinc (blue) in Candida albicans cells (red)
Last year a UK-China research collaboration took an unexpected turn following the discovery of resistance to the ‘last resort’ antibiotic: colistin. Here Professor Timothy Walsh, Professor of Medical Microbiology at Cardiff University, describes how the global community can learn from the positive steps taken by the Chinese Government.
Antibiotic resistance is really all about people and society. We often blame antimicrobial resistance on the bug and how resistance can travel from one bug to another. But different sectors, for example farming, hospitals and communities, are all critically linked. [...]
To tackle growing numbers of drug-resistant infections we can’t apply the same ideas to every situation. Dr Helen Lambert, Reader in Medical Anthropology at the University of Bristol, explains why tailoring our tactics to the local context is vital in the fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
In many parts of the world you can buy antibiotics over the counter without a prescription. It’s a practical way to obtain life-saving drugs where quality medical care is inaccessible.
In Europe we might effectively slow the spread of drug-resistant infections by reducing antibiotic prescribing and stopping access to over-the-counter antibiotics. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best solution everywhere. [...]
In a diagnosis of the global superbug threat today, economist Jim O’Neill includes a recommendation that doctors test patients to find out if their infection is bacterial before prescribing them antibiotics. MRC-funded researcher Dr Tariq Sadiq at St George’s Institute of Infection and Immunity writes here about his research to develop better diagnostic tests that will help us get these results faster so we can make better use of antibiotics. Dr Sadiq explains the need to improve diagnostics in clinics and out in hard-to-reach populations around the world to combat widespread antimicrobial resistance.
Medical advances undermined
How have we been able to make so many advances in medicine? What’s made us so successful at treating cancer and performing heart surgery? Our ability to manage one of their most serious consequences: infection.
Antibiotic resistance undermines those advances and could mean infections that we thought we had defeated, become untreatable. Global deaths from drug-resistant infections are likely to continue to increase over the coming years if we don’t find new ways to tackle them, perhaps reaching 10 million by 2050, if there is no effective action. It is estimated that nearly half of them will occur in Asia. [...]
Researchers at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL are working on projects to tackle different forms of tuberculosis (TB) with shorter treatment programmes. The STREAM project is looking at multidrug-resistant TB, the TRUNCATE project is looking at drug sensitive TB, and the SHINE project is investigating new, shorter treatments for children with TB.
Tuberculosis kills three people every minute. Treatment invariably involves a long course of drugs and the burden of disease falls hardest on low-income countries with stretched health systems. Three projects are running at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit to investigate the efficacy of shorter courses of drugs in some of the countries worst affected by TB. [...]
Who knew we had such pretty guts? Dr Nicola Fawcett, medic and researcher at the University of Oxford, produced these images in collaboration with photographer Chris Wood to show the importance of bacteria for our health and the issue of antimicrobial resistance. The botanical images are made from common bacteria taken from the gut and stamped in decorative patterns onto agar jelly before leaving them to grow overnight. The photographs are on display at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford until 14 May 2016.
Only one left… There is a lot in the news about drug-resistant bacteria. Here you can see discs containing nine commonly-used antibiotics in hospitals. The dark-blue coloured bacteria can grow quite happily in the presence of eight of them – the antibiotics do not kill them. The bacteria are ‘resistant’ to all but one of the antibiotics we have available.
The Serendipidous Flower: Bacteria all behave differently. Some are able to produce a slime and spread out onto the nutrient jelly, looking a bit like a flower. I’d love to say this was intentional -in fact it would be incredibly difficult to get just one colony growing where you wanted. They way this turned out was just luck!
Vine leaf tip: The bacteria are stamped or painted onto the jelly, then left to grow overnight. Each dot is a single colony of bacteria, each containing millions of bacteria. There are dyes in the jelly that are only activated by the enzymes of specific bacteria; in this case, it was Escherichia coli (purple), Citrobacter (turquoise), and Klebsiella(dark blue). These dyes dissolve into the bacterial colonies, turning them different colours.
Wild vines of the gut: Growing on the surface of this nutrient jelly are three common bacteria that helpfully inhabit your gut. The plates also contain paper discs infused with antibiotics, which dissolve into the agar, and alter how the bacteria grow.
Our guts and us: Recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to study bacteria in new ways. This is showing us that we wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria – we live together, and often help one another, living together in balance.
Resistance is hard: The bacteria living near the antibiotic disc here have to work hard to try and stay alive. They are producing a lot of the enzymes that create the colour, hence the ‘rainbow’ appearance.
Competition is healthy: The tree is created out of a mix of bacteria, mostly competing for space and nutrients, so colonies can’t grow larger than pinpricks. This is similar to what happens in the gut, where ‘beneficial’ bacteria can out-compete more harmful ones and keep them under control. Towards the edges, the antibiotics are killing many bacteria, removing the competition. This means the ‘antibiotic resistant’ bacterial colonies can grow larger. By killing the sensitive bacteria with antibiotics, we have allowed the resistant ones to ‘take over’.
This work tells me to remember that the antibiotics I prescribe can sometimes cause unintended harm to the gut bacteria that are helping to keep my patient healthy. It tells me I should be careful not to use antibiotics where they’re not needed.
We often talk about bacteria as harmful things. Images in the media, advertising, even doctors and scientists, portray a healthy, desirable world as one free of bacteria: sterile, washed and scrubbed clean. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t true. [...]