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£3 million windfall to tackle multi-drug resistant bacteria at UEA

Scientists looking for the key to new antibiotic discoveries have been awarded almost £3 million by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and The Wellcome Trust.

The Wellcome Trust has awarded £1.7million to Prof Changjiang Dong from the University of East Anglia (UEA), to continue his leading work investigating the defensive barrier which surrounds drug-resistant bacterial cells – research which is paving the way for a new wave of drugs that kill superbugs.

Researchers from UEA and The John Innes Centre (JIC) will also use £998,000 of funding from NERC to look at how the good bacteria on ants could lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.

Prof Dong’s grant is a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award – funding which supports the brightest researchers with the best ideas, and offers flexible funding support for researchers at all career stages. The prestigious award follows an important breakthrough last year in Prof Dong’s research which could lead to the bacteria not developing drug-resistance at all in the future, one of the biggest challenges in antibiotic development.

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

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

Previously little was known about exactly how the defensive barrier is built. The findings reveal how bacterial cells transport the barrier building blocks (called lipopolysaccharides) to the outer surface.

Prof Dong, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: “This funding will allow us to continue investigating this important breakthrough in antibiotic resistance. The work is vital because drug-resistant bacteria is a global health problem. Many current antibiotics are becoming useless, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.

“The number of super-bugs are increasing at an unexpected rate. This research provides the platform for urgently-needed new generation drugs.”

Led by Dr Matt Hutchings from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences with Prof Barrie Wilkinson, a natural product chemist at the JIC, the ant project will research how host animals select good, antibiotic-producing bacteria and keep out the bad.  This is one of the most important questions in biology, because a healthy microbiome is essential for the host’s survival and may also lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.

Dr Hutchings said: “We use South American leafcutter ants as a model because they have a protective microbiome made up of antibiotic-producing bacteria growing on the outside of their bodies.

“The ants cut leaves and feed them to a symbiotic fungus that they grow as food for their colony. They use antibiotics from their protective microbiomes to protect themselves and their fungus against infection.

“Because the leafcutter ant microbiome is on the outside we can observe and map the behaviour of the bacteria and the antibiotics they produce and we can look at the exchange of food and antibiotics between the host and microbiome. This will ultimately allow us to understand how the host selects and controls the bacteria that make up its microbiome and may also lead to the discovery of new antibiotics.”

Prof Dave Petley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at UEA, said: “This is fantastic news for UEA. Antibiotic resistance is a global challenge and valuable funding such as this allows UEA’s scientists to continue leading the charge in finding answers.”