An interactive workshop to discover new forms of antibiotic resistance using cutting-edge DNA sequencing methods.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat some types of bacterial infections and are necessary to safely perform surgical procedures.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria mutate and become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infection they caused. The more antibiotics are used, the more chance there is for bacteria to develop resistance.

At least 700,000 people per year world-wide die from antibiotic resistant infections. Due to the increasing over use of antibiotics this could rise to 10 million per year globally by 2050, exceeding cancer.

New drugs to prevent this can take up to 15 years and cost hundreds of millions of pounds to develop. Because of this no new classes of antibiotics have been introduced into clinic use in the last 30 years

Why we can't take antibiotics for granted

“For so long we have taken antibiotics for granted. But the first was only discovered in 1928 when a research assistant, Merlin Pryce, drew Alexander Fleming’s attention to the way that mould in a neglected culture was killing surrounding bacteria. Fleming published the findings. Later, Florey identified the active agent, penicillin, and we entered the age of antibiotics.

“Since then chemists and biologists have developed a succession of antibiotics, which until recently have served us well and saved countless lives. But nature never stands still and as new antibiotics are put to work strains of microbes that are resistant to them inevitably emerge – sometimes we see them even before the antibiotics are used clinically. All very clever on the part of microbes, but a big problem for us humans.”

– Professor Mathew Upton
Professor in Medical Microbiology, Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research
Lead for the Antibiotic Resistant Pathogens Research Group

The end of antibiotics?

Antibiotics are now no longer routinely used to treat infections because:

  • many infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not effective
  • antibiotics are often unlikely to speed up the healing process and can cause side effects
  • the more antibiotics are used to treat trivial conditions, the more likely they are to become ineffective for treating more serious conditions

Both the NHS and health organisations across the world are trying to reduce the use of antibiotics, especially for health problems that are not serious, such as chest infections, ear infections in children and sore throats.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats facing us today

Why is this issue important? Why should I care?

Without effective antibiotics many routine treatments will become increasingly dangerous. Setting broken bones, basic operations, even chemotherapy and animal health all rely on access to antibiotics that work.

When infections can no longer be treated by first-line antibiotics, more expensive medicines must be used. A longer duration of illness and treatment, often in hospitals, increases health care costs as well as the economic burden on families and societies.

Antibiotic resistant infections are one of the leading threats to human health and modern medicine. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and international governments have stated that urgent measures are needed to avert the crisis we face.

“If new, powerful antibiotic drugs are not discovered, we ‘may’ return to the pre-antibiotic era.”

– Professor Mathew Upton

Professor Mathew Upton
Professor Upton and his team are conducting pioneering research to help combat antibiotic resistance
Plymouth pioneers. Mat Upton
Biofilm of antibiotic resistant rod-shaped bacteria
Biofilm of antibiotic resistant rod-shaped bacteria

How is the University tackling this crisis?

To help solve this problem the University is engaged in cross-disciplinary research including:

  • examining deep-sea sponges in the search for new antibiotics
  • developing new antibiotics
  • inventing new technologies to detect antibiotic resistance in blood samples.

Underwater Scuba divers enjoy Explore reef Sea life Sea sponge.
“We believe that deep-sea sponges contain diverse populations of new cultivable and non-cultivable bacteria.”
Epidermicin, derived from bacteria found on human skin, is a potential compound for a new antibiotic due to the way it attacks other harmful bacteria
Antibiotic resistant pathogens with ITSMED visual mark
Our antibiotic resistant pathogens research group is internationally recognised for development of novel antibiotics

Exploring deep sea sponges

Professor Upton's research has taken him to the deep sea in a powerful collaboration with Professor Kerry Howell of the Deep Sea Conservation Research Group

By combining their expertise, Mat and Kerry aim to identify and develop potential new antimicrobials produced in the microbiome of sponges that live deep beneath the ocean surface. 

Together, they will develop new methods of microbial cultivation, apply them to unique samples from a source rich in bioactive molecules, and identify urgently-needed new antimicrobials. 

Professor Upton said:

“We believe that deep-sea sponges contain diverse populations of new cultivable and non-cultivable bacteria. My belief is that there are sure to be bugs somewhere in this world which have developed substances poisonous to others and can be used against the bad guys; all my team and I have to do is to find them.”

Find out more about the PLymouth ANtimicrobial EngagemenT (PLANET) Initiative

First new class of antibiotic for clinical use in decades

University spinout company Amprologix Ltd will develop and commercialise the work of Professor Upton, aiming to combat antimicrobial resistance by producing the first new class of antibiotic to be introduced into clinical use for decades.

The first product from the company is expected to be a cream containing epidermicin, one of the new antibiotics in development to combat infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Epidermicin can rapidly kill harmful bacteria including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), Streptococcus and Enterococcus at very low doses, even if they are resistant to other antibiotics. 

Professor Upton said:

“These antibiotics are of a new class (bacteriocins), have novel mechanisms of action and have excellent potential for development into the next generation of powerful antibiotics to treat and prevent drug-resistant infections.”

Find out more about Amprologix's pioneering research

Understanding and treating drug-resistant infections

Professor Upton and his team study pathogens that cause drug resistant infections. A particular focus is on urinary tract infections which are one of the most common bacterial infections and the cause of enormous levels of antibiotic prescription, much of which is not necessary or justified. 

Professor Upton said:

“We have significant expertise in analysis of the genetic relationships of these bacteria (using genome sequence analysis and sequence typing), which helps us understand the factors that lead to development of antibiotic resistance and the way the infections are spread.

“We use the Galleria mellonella larvae infection model, cell culture and high-resolution proteomic methods to analyse the pathogenicity of these bacteria. By understanding the way that these bacteria cause disease and avoid the action of our immune system, we aim to identify new targets for therapeutic drugs and vaccines.”

Find out about more the Biomedical Research Group


Key facts about antibiotic resistance

  • Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
  • Antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, of any age, in any country.
  • Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals is accelerating the process.
  • A growing number of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and salmonellosis – are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics used to treat them become less effective.
  • Antibiotic resistance leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased mortality.

[Source: World Health Organisation]

Antibiotics in blister packs - image courtesy of Getty Images

Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research

The Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research (PIHR) is a thriving community that conducts adventurous world-leading research with the explicit purpose of improving the health and care of the populations we serve. 
Our work is grounded in the needs of the people of the South West and other rural, coastal, and deprived communities worldwide, but PIHR’s research has national and international reach and impact. 
Find out more about the work of PIHR
People walking and talking in a modern setting.

Molecular Microbiology Research Group

There is a global drive to not only discover new antibiotics to combat bacteria which were previously susceptible to antibiotic treatment, but also to develop new types of diagnostics that can help diagnose infection at the point of care.
Dr Tina Joshi's research focuses on designing low cost and rapid point of care nucleic acid-based biosensor assays for detection of AMR resistance genes and other pathogens that work within minutes from sample to result. This research is multidisciplinary and encompasses the engineering, biology, informatics and chemistry disciplines.
Find out more about Dr Tina Joshi's research 
Microbial diagnostics and infection control with ITSMED visual mark

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