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Canadian and U.K. researchers team up to tackle antibiotic resistance

With drug companies reducing antibiotic research, it has fallen to academia to develop the next weapons to fight bacterial infection.


Leading health researchers in Canada and Britain have teamed up to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Two trans-Atlantic research teams including 24 researchers and 18 institutions will spearhead the work with more than $7 million in funding provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Britain’s Medical Research Council. CIHR will provide $4 million over four years and MRC will provide £2 million.

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is growing rapidly, particularly in hospitals and health care facilities, raising serious concerns. “It’s an unbelievably dangerous situation,” said Judith Bray, assistant director of the CIHR Institute of Infection and Immunity. “More and more bugs are resistance to more and more antibiotics.”

At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have reduced research and development into new antibiotics largely for financial reasons, she said. Financial returns are higher for developing drugs used to treat chronic diseases rather than for developing antibiotic drugs, which are usually used for a short time. What’s more, she noted, resistance to new antibiotics quickly emerges, making it difficult for drug manufacturers to keep pace. It’s fallen to academia, she said, to step in and develop the next weapons to fight bacterial infection.

In Canada, the two teams will be led by Gary Dmitrienko at the University of Waterloo and Anthony Clarke at the University of Guelph. Their British counterparts are Tim Walsh of the University of Cardiff and Chris Dowson of the University of Warwick respectively.

The Waterloo team also includes researchers from Université de Montréal, University of Calgary, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, Laurentian University and Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. It will focus on finding new treatments for a type of bacteria that causes hospital-acquired “gram-negative” infections that are resistant to carbapenem, one of the most powerful antibiotics currently available.

The Guelph team includes researchers from UBC, McMaster University and Université Laval. It will try to identify new ways of destroying bacterial cell walls and ultimately killing the infection-causing bacteria.

Antibiotics have been a big health care success but widespread overuse in health care and agriculture has contributed to antibiotic resistance. The problem is especially serious in hospitals and other health care facilities where the emergence of superbugs that are resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics is causing alarm. CIHR estimates that some 250,000 Canadians admitted to hospital each year develop a hospital-acquired infection caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria; of these, 8,000 die.

“It’s not something we’ll ever overcome,” Dr. Bray said. “The bugs will always be smarter than us and they will always be able to adapt to the standard kind of antibiotic we use because they divide so fast.”

But, she said by combining the research strength of the two nations, the hope is that this will reduce research duplication and speed up the development of new drugs.

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