Old Joe to turn blue to mark World Antibiotic Awareness Week

The face of the University of Birmingham’s ‘Old Joe’ Clock tower will be lit blue to shine a light on the work scientists are doing to discover new ways to prevent and treat drug-resistant bacterial infections.

The clock will turn blue during World Antibiotic Awareness Week 2019, which runs from 18 – 24 November, and is organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) to increase global awareness of antibiotic resistance and to encourage best practices among the general public, health workers and policy makers to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.

The persistent overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics in human and animal health have encouraged the emergence and spread of drug-resistant bacteria - which occurs when exposed to the drugs used to treat them.

Laura Piddock, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection and also Director of Scientific Affairs at the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, said: “Since their discovery, antibiotics have served as the cornerstone of modern medicine.

“However, new resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability, and death.

“Without effective antibiotics for prevention and treatment of infections, medical procedures such as organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and surgery such as caesarean sections or hip replacements become very high risk.

“Drug resistance is also a drain on the healthcare system as the cost of care for patients with resistant infections is higher than for patients with non-resistant infections due to longer duration of illness, additional tests and use of more expensive drugs.

“Antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society, however global action to address drug-resistant infections is not happening at the scale and urgency required.

“The current pipeline for new treatments is inadequate for the size of the task, therefore more research, new drug development and different approaches to the stewardship of prescribing and taking antibiotics is needed to ensure both old and new antibiotics remain available.”

The University of Birmingham is carrying out research across the globe to both discover new treatments and also better understand drug resistance.

Work by the team of researchers, all based at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection, includes:

Professor Alan McNally: Director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection, Prof McNally focusses on how genomes evolve and influence the process of drugs becoming resistant to bacterial infections. His research is being carried out in collaboration with scientists around the world including China, Germany, France, Vietnam, and the US. His research recently published in mBio found that a ‘superbug’ clone of E. coli has evolved to prevent itself from becoming so dominant that it could potentially wipe out the bacteria from existence.

Professor Laura Piddock: Professor Piddock is working with a large pharmaceutical company applying a new tool for drug discovery that her team has developed to identify efflux-inhibitors. This has already identified compounds to be developed into drugs for combination with antibiotics so that drug-resistant bacteria are once again killed by antibiotics already available to treat infections. In a separate project with Dr Blaise Pascal Bougnom, they showed that raw wastewater irrigation for urban agriculture in three African cities increases the abundance of transferable antibiotic resistance genes in soil.

Dr Jess Blair: Her team is carrying out research to better understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and how we might interfere with these resistance mechanisms to combat antibiotic resistance. Much of Dr Blair’s work focusses on efflux pumps which are pumps that sit on the surface of bacterial cells and transport toxic substances, such as antibiotics, from inside bacterial cells to outside making them less susceptible to drugs. Her most recent work has included a study about to be published in Plos Pathogens showing which parts of the efflux pump are particularly important for the pumps to assemble. Her team have also recently developed a new tool for measuring the level of drug accumulation and amount of efflux in parallel in single bacterial cells.

Professor Willem van Schaik: He was among a team whose work was recently published in Microbial Genomics, which found potentially harmful microbes overwhelm the healthy gut microbiota in intensive care patients. The research assessed how the diversity and makeup of the gut microbiome varied during patients’ time in intensive care. The gut microbiome is the complex community of bacteria and other microbes that reside in the gut, and plays an important role in health and wellbeing. Prof van Schaik is also carrying out a study on the spread of antibiotic resistance in surface water in Bangladesh, which has highlighted the role of sewage treatment and clean water in preventing the spread of resistant bacteria.

Drug resistance facts

  • Each year, approximately 700,000 people die worldwide as a result of drug-resistant infections.
  • In 2015 in the European Union 670,000 people had drug-resistant infections and 33,000 of  these died.
  • A common intestinal bacteria, known as Klebsiella pneumoniae, that can cause life-threatening infections, has become resistant to a last resort antibiotic used to treat it. The drug resistant strain has spread to all regions of the world and is a major cause of hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and infections in newborns and intensive-care unit patients.
  • Resistance in E. coli to one of the most widely used medicines for the treatment of urinary tract infections - fluoroquinolone antibiotics - is very widespread. There are countries in many parts of the world where this treatment is now ineffective in more than half of patients.
  • Cases of the last resort medicine for gonorrhoea failing to work due to drug resistance have been confirmed in at least 10 countries, including the UK.
  • In 2019, in hospitals in Bangladesh, Columbia, Ghana, India, Lebanon, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam, death rates in patients with blood stream infections due to carbapenem-resistant gram-negative bacteria was 35 per cent, compared to 20 per cent in patients with drug-susceptible infections

Notes to editors:

  • Journalists can arrange interviews via Emma McKinney, Communications Manager (Health Sciences), University of Birmingham: +44 (0)121 414 6681.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The University of Birmingham has one of the biggest teams of microbiologists in the European Union who are devoted to tackling this global issue by carrying out pioneering research to better understand how bacteria cause infection, how antibiotics work, the causes of resistance, prevention of spread of resistant bacteria and finding new ways to treat infections.