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World facing medical ‘dark ages’ over antibiotic resistance

Published on 02/07/14 at 04:26pm
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The UK Government has pledged to become a world leader in tackling antibiotic resistance in the face of a medical ‘dark age’.

Calling upon governments and drug companies around the world to take action, UK prime minister David Cameron has launched an independent review into why so few anti-microbial drugs have been introduced in recent years.

He says: “If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again."

In an unusual move, Cameron has appointed a former chief economist at Goldman Sachs Jim O’Neill – who is most famous for coining the BRIC and MINT acronyms – to lead the review. O’Neill will be joined by experts from science, finance, industry and global health.

Cameron told the BBC that O’Neill was the right choice to head the commission as this was a ‘market failure’, and that new incentives were needed for pharma to start developing new classes of antibiotics.

At a meeting of the G7 last month the prime minister held discussions with world leaders about the threat, and won support from US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel. It is hoped the findings of the commission will be discussed at next year’s G7 summit.

In May the World Health Organization warned that common infections would become “a major threat to public health” and would start to cause deaths on a massive scale. It is estimated that drug-resistant strains of bacteria are currently responsible for 5,000 deaths a year in the UK and 25,000 deaths a year in Europe.

Antibiotic research has been falling out of favour with drug companies as they focus research upon more lucrative fields. AstraZeneca, that has one of the most promising pipelines featuring antibiotics, said in May it was considering exiting the field to focus more on areas where the company was strongest, such as cancer and heart disease.

This new government review has been welcomed by many, including the ABPI and Prof Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England who says she is "delighted to see the prime minister taking a global lead by commissioning this review to help new antibiotics to be developed and brought to patients effectively."

The commission will focus on three key issues: the increase in strains of drug resistant bacteria, the over-use of antibiotics globally, and the ‘market failure’ that has seen no new classes of antibiotic drugs for more than 25 years.

The initiative, funded and hosted by medical research charity the Wellcome Trust, will begin work in September and is expected to deliver recommendations during spring 2015.

Antimicrobial resistance has been a key issue for the director of the trust, Jeremy Farrar, who spoke of a threat to “every aspect of modern medicine: from cancer treatment to Caesarean sections” if the crisis is not met.

There have already been promising signs that the tide could be turning, as in February more than 30 European universities, research institutes and companies led by UK biotech firm Redx Pharma and GlaxoSmithKline – announced they had joined forces in a six-year programme to develop new antibiotics.

In June antibiotic resistance was announced as the focus of the £10 million Longitude prize, which has challenged entrants find a way to prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics within five years.

Emily MacKenzie

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