UEA scientists receive £7.4 million boost to combat ‘worst superbugs’

University of East Anglia scientists are developing a new wave of drugs to combat antibiotic resistance – thanks to a £7.4 million ($9.2 million) boost.

The overuse of antibiotics has made infections harder to treat, leading to thousands of deaths a year through drug-resistant superbugs.

Now, a spin-out company based at UEA’s Norwich Medical School is ‘shutting down’ the genes that cause antibiotic resistance.

Researchers at Procarta Biosystems have discovered a new type of antimicrobial that kills bacteria, including multidrug-resistant Gram-negative strains, by blocking their gene expression.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria acquire genes that protect them from the drug’s attack. They survive treatment and reproduce, spreading the key genes more widely so that drugs become increasingly less effective.

The UEA team hope that new drugs, which combat resistance by blocking gene expression in bacteria, will one-day help save lives by combating the world’s worst superbugs.

The funding comes from CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator) – a global partnership dedicated to accelerating early research and development, to address the rising global threat of drug-resistant bacteria.

The new funding complements a recent £1.3 million (€1.5 million) investment from Novo Holding’s Repair Impact Fund.

Procarta Biosystems founder Prof Michael McArthur, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Antibiotics are important medicines needed to treat and prevent bacterial infections. They are very effective, but they also have a major weakness – bacteria acquire genes that protect them from the drug’s attack.

“Until now, part of the solution has been to develop new antibiotics, however there has not been a new class of antibiotic since the 1980s.

“We want to revolutionise the treatment of serious and life-threatening infections in order to radically improve patient well-being and aid in the global fight against antibiotic resistance.

“Our aim is to create new drugs that shut down bacteria’s protective genes in order to stop antibiotic resistance.

“This is a paradigm shift in research, and we have made a significant breakthrough in the race to solve antibiotic resistance.

“It is important because the problem of antibiotic resistance could take medicine back to the dark ages. Infections caused by multi-drug resistant bacteria lead to prolonged hospital stays, an increase in deaths and pose a major threat to global public health.

“If new drugs are not available soon, some infections could become completely untreatable and surgery and cancer therapy could become much more risky.”

Procarta Biosystems was founded in 2008 by Prof McArthur and Prof Mervyn Bib from the John Innes Centre, with seed funding from the UEA-based Iceni Seedcorn Fund and the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund (ukinnovationscienceseedfund.co.uk).

The new funding will be used to progress the company’s pipeline of pre-clinical precision drugs to treat some of the world’s worst superbugs. These include potentially life-threatening complicated urinary tract and intra-abdominal infections caused by a particular group of Gram-negative pathogens.

This group of pathogens – known collectively as ESKAPE (Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Enterobacter species) are responsible for a significant proportion of infections throughout the world. And they represent the greatest risk of antibiotic resistance of all clinical infections.

Prof McArthur added: “We are particularly concerned about a sub-group of Gram-negative bacteria called Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which are considered to be the worst new superbugs. These bacteria can kill up to half of the patients who develop bloodstream infections and worryingly, resistance in this group is growing exponentially.”

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