In the UK alone, the government estimates there are currently 5,000 deaths each year because antibiotics no longer work for some infections. Worldwide, drug-resistant infections are set to kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined by 2050 – making antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to global human health.

It is against this backdrop that a biomedical scientist at the University of Plymouth is working on projects to develop a new class of antibiotic, and discover new antibiotics for use in the future.

Professor Mathew Upton, from the University’s Institute of Translational and Stratified Medicine, discovered epidermicin in 2008 when he was at the University of Manchester, and, working in collaboration with world-leading industrial biotechnology specialists Ingenza, he has been developing an efficient, scalable microbial production system.

Epidermicin can rapidly kill harmful bacteria including MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), Streptococcus and Enterococcus at very low doses, even if they are resistant to other antibiotics. The antibiotic was initially recovered from a skin bacterium named Staphylococcus epidermidis, but can now be produced in a microbe suitable for industrial scale-up, using synthetic biology methods developed by Ingenza.

In the form of a nasal ointment, epidermicin has delivered remarkable results in infection model trials, with a single dose proving as effective as six doses of the current standard clinical therapy.

Now, working with University commercialisation partners Frontier IP, Professor Upton has launched his own spinout company through which he is looking to develop a cream containing epidermicin.

Through the company, Amprologix, the next phase of development for epidermicin is pre-clinical trials, which, if successful, would pave the way for testing on human volunteers and ultimately the creation of a licensed drug within the next six years. The team is also researching alternative uses for the drug, such as investigating whether it is effective against superficial skin infections, like impetigo and acne.

On top of his work with epidermicin, Professor Upton is involved in another project identifying and developing potential new antimicrobials produced by the microbiome of sponges which live deep beneath the ocean surface. He is working alongside Dr Kerry Howell from the University of Plymouth Marine Institute to develop new methods of microbial cultivation, apply them to unique samples from a source rich in bioactive molecules, and identify urgently needed new antimicrobials.

The team is already making headway, as they have cultured more than 100 novel bacterial strains from deep-sea sponges, some of which have produced antimicrobials that can kill MRSA.

As well as screening for potential antimicrobials, Professor Upton and Dr Howell are on the lookout for other potential applications in the areas of cancer, immune deficiency and wound healing.

No new antibiotics have been introduced into clinical use for the past 30 years and, in 30 years’ time, resistance to existing remedies is set to be one of the biggest killers in the world.

But, alongside a commitment to educating the public about the dangers of antimicrobial resistance through regularly speaking at local events, Professor Upton hopes to be part of the solution.