The spectre of a dwindling supply of effective antibiotics is considered one of the gravest threats to public health – one that could soon claim more lives than cancer – and yet two leading experts tasked with tackling the issue fear that 2017 has seen research lag even further behind.
Lord Jim O’Neill, author of a landmark report on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) said this week that the UK government has ‘lost focus’ on the challenge over the last 18 months. He also urged big pharma to “do more than talk about the problem.”
He was speaking at the launch of the AMR Centre in Alderley Park, Cheshire, a new UK centre of excellence set up to accelerate the development of new antibiotics at a time when bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to existing drugs.
Dr Peter Jackson, executive director of the new centre, told delegates that the number of scientists working in industry on AMR is actually down on last year to fewer than 500 worldwide – “a mere handful” relative to a problem that threatens to reverse decades of advances in medicine and make even routine surgical procedures much more risky. This, despite a UN resolution signed a year ago where all 193 members vowed to do more to combat the problem.
Lord O’Neill’s Review, commissioned by David Cameron when he was Prime Minister, predicted that by 2050 antibiotic resistance will account for over 10 million deaths per year worldwide. And if no new antibiotics are developed, the impact on the global economy will be 100 trillion dollars by the same year.
Lord O’Neill told the audience at Alderley Park: “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.”
He added: “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 more open-minded approach and back these ideas with their own money.”
The AMR Centre has been established as a key part of the UK’s response to this global threat and ensure that new drugs can be developed and brought to market as efficiently as possible.
Dr Jackson underlined that despite the arrival of the new centre the number of scientists researching new antibiotic drugs in the UK is at a record low “with fewer than 100 researchers in industry.”
Cases of antibiotic resistant infections have been rising steeply over the past 15 years, with most E.Coli infections now resistant to penicillins.
Dr Jackson, added: “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.
“In recent years, thanks to the pioneering work of Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, and Lord O’Neill, the UK has been a thought leader around antimicrobial resistance. We aim to action many of the problems they have identified and continue the drive to find new antibiotic drugs.”
The AMR Centre has developed a partnering model with SMEs to enable quick progression of research through to clinical trial so that treatments can be brought to patients as quickly as possible.
The centre is supported by a number of backers, including Manchester Science Partnerships (MSP), 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.
It has already signed its first deals. One is a partnership with Massachusetts clinical-stage drug development company, Microbiotix Inc. The centre has also reached an agreement with Stockholm-based Medivir to take part in a key research program to tackle the threat posed by an enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to widely used antibiotics such as penicillin.
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.