Few issues are more pressing than the global problem of antibiotic resistance, so we speak to Professor Mathew Upton, about his work searching for new antibiotics.
“For so long now, antibiotics have been seen as a magic bullet capable of curing our ills and much of the medical system we’ve developed over the last 50 to 60 years is reliant on their use.
“Yet as early as 1945, in his Nobel Prize lecture, Sir Alexander Fleming warned about the dangers of antibiotic resistance and today it represents one of the biggest threats to human health globally.
“Many of the medical procedures and treatments that we take for granted, from hip replacements to caesarean sections and cancer therapy, are underpinned by the use of antibiotics to prevent the occurrence of infection. Yet all that we take for granted could be taken away.
“In the last few years, since the O’Neill Review into Antibiotic Resistance, a lot of progress has been made in quantifying the extent of the risk; and we know the challenge has to be addressed on many fronts.”
The O’Neill Review made a number of recommendations, including improved infection control, ensuring antibiotics are used appropriately in humans and animals; the research and development of new drugs and diagnostic tools; plus, adequately monitoring the prescription of antibiotics and the rise of resistance.
“Efforts are focused on combatting antimicrobial resistance either through prevention with vaccines and improved hygiene or by developing new antibiotics,” explains Mathew. “Public engagement and awareness also have a huge role to play in changing behaviour and improving personal hygiene to reduce general levels of infection and minor illness.
“Given viral infections are often followed by bacterial infections, washing your hands is crucial. If we pick up fewer viral infections, our immune systems will work better, and we’ll be less susceptible to bacterial infections – reducing our need for antibiotics.
“When we do catch a cold or have a sore throat, we are in many cases better off relieving the symptoms rather than reaching for antibiotics. We mustn’t take antibiotics for granted and when they are prescribed, it’s imperative that we take them as directed and that we use the whole course.”
In addition to raising awareness, Mathew’s work focuses on finding new antibiotics that work in different ways to conventional antibiotics. He leads a team of researchers working in the field of antimicrobial resistance, discovering and developing new antimicrobials.
“Bacteria evolve very quickly and have many resistance mechanisms, but in the last ten years, we’ve learnt a lot about tracking and tracing this resistance. Now we are looking for novel antibiotics that work differently and are not threatened by these mechanisms.
“Until recently, the technical methods used to discover new bacteria were similar to those used in the 1950’s and 60’s, but using these methods means that there is a risk that you find things you’ve seen before.
“However, a few years ago, researchers at North Western University developed a new approach to growing bacteria from environmental samples, which was a really important step forward, meaning there is a whole new library of bacteria that we can start screening.
“When you have a novel lead, you’re interested in getting to the point when you know it is new, but this takes quite a while and can be frustrating. However, new technology, like DNA sequencing analysis tools, enable you to get to this point a lot quicker by identifying the genes important for the production of novel antibiotics.
“The formation of Amprologix is a huge step and I see it as accelerating future developments in which we hope to take some of these interesting antibiotic candidates through to clinical trials.
“Suffice to say, any new antibiotics found will be used in a very different way to those we’ve relied on over the last 50 years and this should help ensure they remain useful for as long as possible.”