Yorkshire scientists on frontline of battle against viruses

Researchers in Sheffield are leading the international efforts to tackle the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics, as Chris Bond reports.

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DAVID Cameron’s stark warning that the world could soon be “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” unless action is taken to tackle the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics, has caused a bit of a stir.

In an interview with The Times this week, the Prime Minister said resistance to antibiotics was a “very real and worrying threat” and could lead to a future in which currently treatable injuries and illnesses proved fatal. “This is not some distant threat but something happening right now,” he added.

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As well as highlighting the threat it posed he announced a review into why so few anti-microbial drugs have been introduced in recent years, with economist and former Sheffield graduate Jim O’Neill tasked with leading a panel of experts to set out plans for encouraging the development of a new generation of antibiotics.

If Britain is to lead the fightback against antibiotic-resistant superbugs then the Florey and Imagine institutes at the University of Sheffield are going to play a pivotal role. Researchers here are well aware of what is now regarded as one of the biggest biomedical challenges of our age and are already working on new treatments.

Simon Foster, professor of Molecular Microbiology and Imagine Project director, says we have grown accustomed to science providing solutions. “We have forgotten what it is like to be under the constant threat of infectious disease, but this is something we are seeing more and more of as pathogens become resistant to antibiotics.

“One of our failings is that we see the world from the perspective of a human timeframe. Diseases, of course, can adapt at dizzying speed, and our challenge is to wrong-foot them with innovative new treatments.”

Professor Foster believes we are in a “potentially dire situation” but says the Florey Institute is geared specifically to tackling these organisms. “This learning could help save countless lives across the world.”

The Florey and Imagine projects are at the heart of establishing Sheffield as a leading centre for biological imaging and tackling infectious diseases.

The university itself has a long history of being at the forefront of ground-breaking treatments. In 1941, Sir Howard Florey, former chairman of pathology at the university, conducted the first ever clinical trials of penicillin – a drug which has since saved more than 82 million lives worldwide.

Now, over 73 years later and inspired by his pioneering work, the Florey Institute is striving to make life-saving advances in understanding how infectious agents interact with their hosts to cause disease and translate these discoveries into new treatments.

It’s a critical challenge given the fact that infectious diseases claimed the lives of more than 1.6 billion people during the 20th Century – more than twice the number killed by cancer.

Professor Richard Jones, pro-vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the university, says we’ve had a relatively easy ride since the discovery of penicillin and its development into a treatment at the end of the Second World War. “Now there’s a race; microbes are developing resistance to existing antibiotics faster than we can develop new ones. Innovation in developing new antibiotics has slowed right down, and we’re in serious danger of losing this race.”

But he and his colleagues are addressing the problem head on.

“We’re bringing together microbiologists, clinicians, physicists and chemists to study pathogens and their interactions with the humans they infect.

“We’re developing new techniques so we can understand how pathogens work and find their weaknesses, in order to provide new types of treatment to help people combat infection. We’re really excited by this vision.”