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Researchers at the Kennedy Institute join a collaboration to find new ‘drug-free’ ways of treating illnesses where current treatments have become ineffective due to antibiotic resistance.

Form to assess risk of antibiotic resistance © SHUTTERSTOCK

A cross-disciplinary team from the Universities of Oxford, Ulster and UCL today announced major funding from EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to tackle the growing challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The new 5-year programme, "Beyond Antibiotics," will start in October 2021 and bring together researchers from across the Physical and Life Sciences to develop new technology to improve both the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial infections.

The 2019 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on AMR identifies it as: "one of the greatest threats we face as a global community." The evolution of drug-resistant bacteria, our over-use of antibiotics, and failure to develop new methods for tackling infection could leave us without viable treatments for even the most trivial infections within the next 3 decades. It is estimated that drug-resistant infections could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and an annual economic cost of £69 trillion.

Professor Eleanor Stride, the statutory Professor of Biomaterials at the University of Oxford is leading the collaboration. She said: "Despite tremendous advances in understanding the biological mechanisms of AMR, there is an urgent need to develop better diagnostics and alternative treatment options. Our aim is to complement ongoing efforts in drug discovery and microbiology with an equal contribution from the Engineering and Physical Sciences to meet this need."

The overall goal of the programme is to provide a set of commercially viable and effective technologies to address the need for transformative innovation as set out in the recent United Nations Call-for-innovation. The key deliverables will be:

  1. Prototypes for a treatment screening platform to enable high throughput testing of new therapies and accelerate their translation.
  2. Prototype point-of-care diagnostic devices for both medical and agricultural use to reduce inappropriate use of antibiotics
  3. Pre-clinical efficacy data for new therapies in critical infections.

The academic team combines:

  • Biomedical Engineers specialising in stimuli responsive drug delivery and "drug-free" therapies (Prof. Eleanor Stride, Prof. Constantin Coussios and Prof. Robin Cleveland, University of Oxford) and biomimetic microfluidic systems for testing of novel therapies (Dr. Dario Carugo, UCL),
  • Chemists & Pharmaceutical Scientists developing new antimicrobial drugs and methods for targeted delivery (Profs. John Callan and Anthony McHale, University of Ulster; Prof. Robert Carlisle, University of Oxford),
  • Microbiology (Dr. Jennifer Rohn, UCL),
  • Immunology (Prof. Fiona Powrie, Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology),
  • Microscopy (Dr. Tanmay Bharat, Dunn School of Pathology) for probing the mechanisms of infection and rapid diagnosis.

The team will also collaborate closely with clinicians specialising in infections representing the highest use of antibiotics and key partners from the pharmaceutical, medical device and agricultural industries, and public health agencies.

Exploring the role of the immune system in regulating microbial infection, Fiona Powrie said: "I am delighted to be part of this multi-disciplinary team which will harness biology and engineering science to develop new approaches to tackle the growing problem of anti-microbial resistance."

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said: "Technologies and approaches pioneered by UK researchers have the potential to revolutionise treatment for a wide range of conditions, from bowel cancer to diabetes.

The projects announced today exemplify this potential and may play a key role in improving the lives of millions of people."

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