The overuse and misuse of antibiotics poses a serious threat to humanity but underfunding means little has been done to address the problem. All that is about to change, thanks, in part, to a £100 million gift from INEOS to Oxford University
A silent killer, which threatens to claim more than 10 million lives every year by 2050, must be tackled before it’s too late, say scientists. They fear unless new drugs are found to replace existing antibiotics that have lost their efficacy, common infections, which have been successfully treated with antibiotics for decades, could become killers once again.
Misuse and overuse of antibiotics are to blame for their demise, and underfunding means little has been done to address what is deemed to be one of the biggest rising threats to global health since COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has been like an earthquake,” said Professor Tim Walsh. “It’s been rapid and sudden, whereas antimicrobial resistance, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, but nonetheless it’s increasing year on year.”
But all that is about to change.
INEOS has committed £100 million to support research at Britain’s Oxford University into the growing resistance to antibiotics.
“Antimicrobial resistance is one of these hidden dangers for the human race,” said INEOS Chairman and Founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe. “But I don’t think it is widely recognised yet.”
All modern surgery and cancer treatments rely on the use of effective antibiotics to reduce infections.
“To lose this precious gift will signal a return to a pre-antibiotic era,” said Mr David Sweetnam, a surgeon who will advise the new INEOS Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Research. “We now have a very narrow window of opportunity in which to change course and prevent the unthinkable from becoming the inevitable.”
Illnesses which have evolved to become difficult or impossible to treat with antibiotics already kill about 1.5 million people a year.
But scientists warn that medicine will be taken back to the dark ages if antibiotics are rendered ineffective – and millions will die.
“If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of not ignoring high consequence events that are headed our way,” said Professor Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
It is estimated that about 80% (by weight) of worldwide antibiotics are used in animal agriculture, not always directly to treat infection, but often to promote growth for meat.
“This over-usage is helping infections to develop drug resistance in humans too, and damages the medical frontline,” said Professor Walsh. “The new INEOS Oxford Institute will be unique in researching novel, animal-specific drugs, to preserve human medicines' effectiveness for longer- which could have a significant impact on delaying the AMR crisis."
Oxford University played a crucial role in the early development of antibiotics in the 1940s.
Alexander Fleming, a Scottish physician and microbiologist, had discovered penicillin by accident by 1928 but it was a team of scientists at Oxford who turned Fleming’s discovery – that the Penicillium mould genus produced a substance that inhibited the growth of some bacteria – into the wonder drug that has saved so many lives.
After this, followed a golden era of antibiotic research and discovery, but this ran out of road. No new antibiotics have been successfully developed since the 1980s.
“This donation will allow us to do work on antibiotics that we have been dreaming about doing for the past couple of decades,” said Professor Chris Schofield, Academic lead (chemistry) at the INEOS Oxford Institute.
Mr Sweetnam said the COVID-19 pandemic had shown the world the importance of science and research.
He pointed out that the vaccines, which were created in record time, had been developed from research conducted long before COVID-19 struck.
“It’s clear that we must be looking right now for new antibiotics with the same urgency as we have been for vaccines,” he said. “The consequence of continued complacency doesn’t bear thinking about.”
INEOS’ donation is one of the largest ever given to a UK university.
“It is an example of a powerful partnership between public and private institutions to address global problems,” said Professor Richardson.
Lord O’Neill of Gatley, the economist who co-authored the book Superbugs: An Arms Race against Bacteria, said INEOS' success in the chemicals industry coupled with the great minds of Oxford University and collaborating scientists offered hope.
“This new Institute, applying a model of reinvesting profit to drive further progress in the field, could be the breakthrough moment the global AMR challenge needs,” he said.
Without urgent collaborative action to halt the rise of superbugs, mankind could return to a world where taken-for-granted treatments such as chemotherapy and hip replacements could become too risky, childbirth becomes extremely dangerous, and even a simple scratch could kill.
INEOS’ £100 million gift will enable around 50 researchers over the next 5 years to:
ADDRESS the overuse and misuse of antibiotics
COLLABORATE with other global leaders in the field of antimicrobial resistance to prevent common microbes becoming multi-drug resistant superbugs, such as MRSA
DEVELOP new drugs for both people and animals