Warning over 'handful' of scientists researching new antibiotics

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There are now less than 500 scientists studying antimicrobial resistance (AMR) worldwide and the UK government is losing focus on the public health crisis it could cause, experts have said at the launch of a new specialist research centre.

Dr Peter Jackson, executive director of a new dedicated AMR research centre, warned that the number of scientists working on antimicrobial resistance is a “mere handful” relative to a problem threatening to reverse decades of advances in medicine and make even routine surgical procedures more risky.

Jackson said: “The gravity of the problem is hard to overstate, and unless action is taken now it will claim many more lives than the 50,000 in Europe and the US, and the 700,000 lives across the world currently lost each year because of we’ve running out of effective antibiotics."

“The AMR Centre is part of the response to the crisis and will help plug the gap that has been proven to exist over the last 30 years in terms of funding, expertise and collaboration. We are now very much up and running with three programs in our laboratories and more to follow.”

Based on the old AstraZeneca research campus at Alderley Park, Cheshire, the AMR Centre (AMRC) partners with SMEs to fast-track research through to clinical trials so treatments can be brought to patients as quickly as possible.

The centre is supported by backers, including Manchester Science Partnerships, a leading creator of innovation districts in the UK, and Catapult Ventures, a public-private venture capital fund, along with a number of private investors.

The AMRC is an alliance partner of CARB-X, a $450m global initiative backed by the US Government and the UK charity the Wellcome Trust. The US-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) provides additional pre-clinical support.

Lord Jim O’Neill, author of a landmark report on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) added at the launch event that the government had lost focus on the challenge since the time of the Brexit referendum last June.

He urged pharma companies to rise to the challenge posed by drug-resistant microbes – O’Neill was the author of a review commissioned by former prime minister David Cameron that called for action across government and industry to find new antibiotics.

The review predicted that by 2050, antibiotic resistance will account for more than 10 million deaths per year worldwide, costing the global economy $100 trillion by the same year without new antibiotics.

O’Neill said: “The UK government has played a mammoth role in getting the ball rolling on antimicrobial resistance all over the world but since the review, some of the intensity of focus has been lost. I hope the government rediscovers the passion for championing the AMR Centre and other initiatives that place Britain in a leading role on this issue.”

“All of the talk from the big pharmaceutical companies must also now translate into action. I have seen evidence of encouraging early research and we need big pharma to take a more open-minded approach and back these ideas with their own money,” he added.

Big pharma has begun to produce new antibiotics in recent years, after a long period of inactivity.

Roche earlier this year signed an antibiotic R&D deal with Warp Drive Bio and Merck & Co, which acquired specialists Cubist Pharmaceuticals in 2014 for $8.4 billion.

Last year, AstraZeneca got a new antibiotic, Zavicefta, approved in Europe for patients with serious Gram-negative bacterial infections requiring hospitalisation.