It is predicted that 10 million people will die from drug-resistant bacteria by 2050. This, alongside climate change and food shortages, makes anti-microbial resistance (AMR) one of the greatest threats facing humanity today. The danger has been highlighted in a recent government study, which suggests that global GDP would decrease by 30% with the impact of such a human loss.
Professor Sally C. Davies, Chief Medical Officer, laid out the sobering realities of the problem, saying: “The rapid spread of multi-drug resistant bacteria means that we could be close to reaching a point where we may not be able to prevent or treat everyday infections or diseases.”
Among the 40-or-so different antibiotics on the market, the most commonly prescribed are amoxicillin and penicillin – known as the “broad band” antibiotics for their effective use on many kinds of different bacteria. However, the “broad-bandedness” of penicillin is curse as well as a blessing; overuse of the drug in the first place arises from a failure to diagnose a bacterial infection specifically.
One of the many scientists trying to resolve the crisis is Thomas Krauss, Professor of Photonics at the University of York, who works in collaboration with a cross-disciplinary team to tackle AMR. Krauss knows as well as anyone that the stakes are high. He was inspired to join the research effort, he says, after his two year-old son fell seriously ill with pneumonia. “The antibiotics he was given failed to work and we feared for his life. He was deteriorating rapidly. When they took blood samples, it took 48 hours to come back from the laboratory. We were really worried about him,” he says.
“Later I thought, what can I do? How can I use my research skills to make a beneficial impact on society? I wanted to help find a diagnosis in ten minutes, not 48 hours.”
Part of Krauss’ project involves developing tiny biosensors which are designed to improve diagnosis of bacterial infections. “We’re working on novel photonic technologies that control light on a very small scale so they can interact with bacteria, and test how these bacteria respond to antibiotics.”
It is hoped that clinicians will use this technology to identify precisely which type of “narrow band” antibiotic should be used for individual cases.
The next problem is that of financial cost and accessibility. As Krauss puts it, “It’s all well and good if you have fancy equipment in your physics lab, but it’s no good if no one uses it in the field. So we’re trying to bridge that gap, to make technology that is directly applicable.”
So how can scientists address the money problem? When will this tech be made affordable – if ever? “We’re currently working with health economists on this very question. If the NHS decide on a treatment, they have to take this into account. How much can you spend on someone’s life? It’s a difficult question. But the budget is finite. If you spend more on one technology it has to come from somewhere else, so it’s a give-and-take.”
There are many other research projects into AMR currently underway at York. Environmental scientists are researching the fate of antibiotics in waste water and soil; physicists are harnessing low temperature plasma as a bacteriocidal agent; and synthetic chemists are designing new classes of antimicrobial compounds. Other teams are working to better understand bacterial behaviour and evolution, to find novel targets for new drugs, and to assess the real-world impact of new technologies.
And for now, even in the face of those dire predictions for 2050, Krauss remains cautiously optimistic for the future of antibiotic treatment. “I’m positive by nature. There’s a Greenpeace saying: ‘the optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.’ I firmly believe in that. It won’t happen automatically, but we will find a solution.”