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Urgent need to find antibiotic alternatives

Date 13.11.18

ESR scientists say there is an urgent need to develop alternatives to conventional antibiotics for use in the treatment of both humans and food-producing animals.

The World Health Organisation’s Antibiotic Awareness Week which began this week highlights increasing concerns about the emergence of bacterial strains showing resistance to all classes of antibiotics commonly used in human medicine.

ESR scientists are part of a team including experts from the University of Canterbury looking at an innovative biological treatment to overcome antibiotic resistance.

ESR scientist Craig Billington says no new classes of antibiotics have been developed for 30 years, and resistance has arisen to all antimicrobial drugs developed to date.

There is international evidence of increasing multidrug-resistant bacterial strains, although they are not yet well established in New Zealand, he says.

A potential new class of alternative drugs are innovative bacteria-killing enzymes that are likely to be well tolerated by both humans and farms animals.

The enzymes are generated by bacteriophages (phages), which are viruses that specifically infect bacteria.

The potential for using phages to kill bacteria has been recognised for almost 100 years, with early pioneering work being carried out at around the time of the First World War.

However, phage therapy for human disease was not adopted in Western countries and the discovery of antibiotics put an end to the early era of phage therapies.

The emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria has recently stimulated a renaissance of interest in using phage therapy for human and animal medicine.

The research project by Dr Billington and University of Canterbury colleagues looking at developing safe and effective treatment to beat antibiotic resistance has the potential to save lives, reduce healthcare costs and protect New Zealand’s agricultural food exports.

“The application of this research will have many implications across multiple industries, creating new treatment options for infections in the field of medicine, becoming a low-cost solution to on-farm bacteria animal diseases, and being a treatment to eliminate cross-contamination of food that is vulnerable to microbial pathogens,” Dr Billington says.

The work by ESR scientists supports the Surveillance and Research objective under the New Zealand Antimicrobial Resistance Action Plan developed by the Ministry of Health, the Minister for Primary Industries and representative from the human health, animal health and agriculture sectors.

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