New science minister announces 'war cabinet' to tackle antimicrobial resistance on all fronts

17 July 2014

The Medical Research Council (MRC) is to lead a cross-council initiative backed by eight government bodies and the Wellcome Trust to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on all fronts.

For the first time all seven research councils will collaborate on the ever-growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. The cross-council AMR initiative will coordinate the work of medical researchers, biologists, engineers, vets, economists, social scientists, mathematicians and even designers, in a multi-pronged approach to address all aspects of the multifaceted problem.

The MRC, which will lead the initiative, has calculated that in the UK alone £275 million has been spent on researching the problem since 2007. Yet, to date, no effective solutions have been found and it has been estimated that current antibiotics will be all but useless within the next two decades. The Science and Technology Committee report on antimicrobials, published last week, stated that collaboration between different areas of research is paramount in tackling AMR.

The problem of AMR extends beyond human health. Animals, particularly livestock, are increasingly being infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Such bacteria are found in varied environments – from fields and rivers to hospitals or the kitchen sink but little is known about how human and animal AMR are related. The initiative will work to identify common characteristics of AMR in both humans and in farm and wild animals in order to find new drugs in a pipeline that has all but dried up.

At the same time, scientists will be investigating how to track the extent of AMR in different environments (the sea, rivers, air, soil and in organisms, as well as in food, homes and hospitals.) Researchers funded by the Natural Environment Research Council have revealed the first finding of an imipenam-resistant E. coli in a UK river, a broad spectrum antibiotic that's often used when other antibiotics don’t work. (See below case studies from the seven research councils illustrating the type of work they are doing in this area.)

In his first announcement in the new role, Science Minister Greg Clark said:

"This unique collaboration involving all seven research councils will help to drive forward important advances in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. The united strategy announced today will provide a more coordinated approach to research gathering by bringing together leading cross-industry experts against what is one of today's greatest scientific problems."

Professor Sir John Savill, Chief Executive of the MRC, which will head the collaboration, said: "Researchers have been waging a war on AMR for decades but up until now we've had no war cabinet to coordinate research on all fronts. This is about tackling the problem at every level and in every environment – from labs to livestock, from finding new diagnostic tools to educating professionals and the public. One hundred years ago 25 per cent of all deaths were due to bacterial infection. We cannot return to those days."

The MRC held workshops in 2013 to identify key research priorities. These have been grouped into four separate themes (see below) and two calls for research proposals are now open – the deadline is 2 September 2014.

Further information

For more information on the AMR initiative, see the full press release on the MRC website.

ESRC formed a working group to scope the important contribution that social science could make to research on AMR. The report of this working group is available to download below.

ESRC Press Office