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UEA antibiotics breakthrough named UK’s best research project

A UEA project to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance has won a prestigious national research award.

Scientists who found an ‘Achilles’ heel’ in the defensive barrier which surrounds drug-resistant bacterial cells won the Times Higher Education (THE) Award ‘Research Project of the Year’ award last night (Thursday).

The awards, now in their eleventh year, are widely recognised as the Oscars of the higher education sector, shining a spotlight on the outstanding achievements of institutions, teams and individuals in the UK higher education sector.  

Lead researcher Prof Changjiang Dong, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, collected the awards.

Ahead of the evening, he said: “Antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest challenges facing modern medicine and I feel very honoured that our research has been shortlisted for such a prestigious award.

“Many antibiotics are becoming useless, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Super-bug numbers are increasing at an unexpected rate. We want to change that.”

The research findings pave the way for a new wave of drugs that kill superbugs by bringing down their defensive walls rather than attacking the bacteria itself. It means that in the future, bacteria may not develop drug-resistance at all.

Researchers investigated ‘Gram-negative bacteria’ which is particularly resistant to antibiotics because of its cells’ impermeable lipid-based outer membrane.

This membrane acts as a defensive barrier against attacks from the human immune system and antibiotics. It allows the pathogenic bacteria to survive, but removing this barrier causes the bacteria to become more vulnerable and die.

Until this research, little was known about how the defensive barrier is built. The findings reveal how bacterial cells transport the barrier building blocks (called lipopolysaccharides) to the outer surface by membrane protein complex LptD/E.

Prof Dong and his team identified the path and gate used by the bacteria to transport the barrier building blocks to the outer surface. Importantly, they demonstrated that the bacteria would die if the gate is locked.

The judges said it had “the potential to make an enormous contribution in the field of antibiotic resistance and will make a huge difference to global health”.

The victory was witnessed by more than 1,100 people, who gathered at the Grosvenor House Hotel, Park Lane for the awards last night, hosted by comedian Rory Bremner.

The Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson MP, joined universities from all over the country to celebrate the greatest ideas, the finest practice and the very best researchers and teachers in the sector.

The winners were chosen by a panel of judges including Alison Johns, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Sir Deian Hopkin, president, National Library of Wales, and Joanna Newman, vice-principal (international), King's College London.

The research was published in the journal Nature on June 18, 2014. Prof Dong has since received £1.7 million in funding from The Wellcome Trust to continue his team’s work.

Read the full list of winners here.

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