Norwich Research Park team receives £7.4 million to combat superbugs

A Norwich Research Park team is developing a new wave of drugs to combat antibiotic resistance – following a £7.4 million ($9.2 million) funding injection.

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

Procarta Biosystems was founded in 2008 by Professor Michael McArthur and Professor Mervyn Bibb from the John Innes Centre with funding from the UEA-based Iceni Seedcorn Fund and the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund.

The team, based at the UEA Norwich Medical School, hope that new drugs, which work by shutting down the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance, 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.

Professor McArthur says: “Antibiotics 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 to radically improve patient well-being and aid the global fight against antibiotic resistance.

“Our aim is to create new drugs that shut down bacteria’s protective genes 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.

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 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.

Professor McArthur adds: “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.”

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

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

Professor McArthur explains: “Our breakthrough 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 riskier.”

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