UK should remove blocks on phage research as AMR fears rise

Rosalind Franklin Lab

Government should consider re-purposing the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory to support clinical research

A new report has called for the UK government to invest in advanced manufacturing plants for bacteriophages – viruses that kill bacteria – that could be an alternative to antibiotics, which are losing their potency against pathogens.

The document from the Science, Innovation & Technology Committee (SITC) is asking the government to consider re-purposing the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in the West Midlands – set up to provide COVID testing, but now up for sale – as a manufacturing facility that could be used to produce phages for use in clinical trials.

That could solve one of the main obstacles in front of bacteriophage R&D: namely, that any candidate advanced into human studies must be made at a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) compliant facility. But, according to the SITC, investment in such a plant will only be justified by successful studies.

The potential of phages to kill bacteria has been known for more than 100 years, but, as antibiotics were easier to test and manufacture, interest in developing them to treat infections waned. Now, with antimicrobial resistance (AMR) rendering an increasing number of antibiotics ineffective and few new drugs being tested, there is an urgent need to look at the role of phages again.

SITC's chair, Greg Clark MP, said the panel and members of the scientific and health community in the UK were astonished to see the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in Royal Leamington Spa – which received more than £1 billion in public funding – appear for sale on the property website Rightmove.

“It consists of modern, secure laboratory facilities and was meant to be an important source of national resilience against future pandemics,” said Clark, the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells. “Our Committee’s report on phages asks for the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory to be considered for this purpose, rather than be lost to the nation and to science in a firesale.”

A small GMP facility should be set up along the lines of the UK’s Catapult network of technology and innovation hubs that could be used by phage developers who cannot afford to make the level of investment on their own.

The report also highlights that the world is facing a real crisis, with increasing numbers of patients dying from bacterial infections that can’t be treated, according to Professor Martha Clokie, director of the Centre for Phage Research at the University of Leicester.

In November 2022, for example, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control published statistics that estimated that more than 35,000 people a year die from AMR across the EU and European Economic Area, with similar levels of deaths in the US.

It concludes that the UK should invest more in this research area to save lives, recommending structural changes so that regulators and policy-makers work more closely with researchers and clinical practitioners, along with the provision of infrastructure such as phage banks and GMP facilities.

“Ultimately, this should result in the saving of a significant number of lives, reduce misery and suffering from chronic infections, and save the NHS considerable resource,” said Prof Clokie.