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Research opportunities in Europe


Research opportunities in Europe Battling the Superbugs

Antibiotic resistance is a global health challenge. However, researchers at universities across Europe are seeking solutions - thanks to major backing from the European Union. Kathryn Senior reports;

There is no quick and easy solution to the huge public health challenge posed by antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, but there is a huge amount of research going on in this area. Europe has invested heavily in research to understand and combat antibiotic resistance for well over a decade, and the latest commitment of over €200 million across 15 European projects should see some exciting results.

The incidence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - otherwise known as MRSA - strains rose sharply in many European countries in the late 1990s and the EU Framework programme, which coordinates scientific research across Europe, placed antimicrobial resistance high on its research priority list. And it has remained there; the European Commission's Directorate General for Research, recently confirmed antibiotic resistance as still a "priority area'.

Ongoing research
Current projects include ANTIRESDEV, a three-year project investigating the molecular basis of antibiotic resistance. Co-ordinated by University College London, ten European research partners are involved, in locations ranging from Sienna in Italy, Stockholm in Sweden, Zurich and Berne in Switzerland. With a research budget of more than €5 million, the ANTIRESDEV groups are investigating how antibiotic resistant strains of indigenous bacteria arise in people treated with different antibiotics. The results should help us understand more about how mobile genetic elements are passed between bacteria, and to develop new drug targets to limit this.

Epidemiological research projects such as CONCORD concentrate on how bacteria such as MRSA spread so fast in the healthcare environment and also why some strains spread in the community via animals such as farmed pigs. CONCORD is coordinated by researchers at the University of Utrecht and involves partners from Portugal, Poland, France, Scotland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. A priority of the project so far has been to characterise the new ST398 MRSA strains that can be transmitted and spread between pigs and people.

Practical application
In addition to fundamental scientific research, European strategists recognise the need to forge strong links between these projects and translational research that can apply the findings. Projects such as CAREPNEUMO, TROCAR and PILGRIM aim to produce data that will help develop new guidelines on hospital management and clinical practice. TROCAR, which brings together the research expertise of 14 major European institutes under the patronage of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) in Basel, is developing new methods to detect and control the spread of high-risk strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Giuseppe Cornaglia of ESCMID predicts that the results "could provide the scientific foundation for an early warning system such that new high-risk strains can be detected as soon as they begin to circulate in healthcare or community settings.'

Reducing overuse of antibiotics is regarded as essential and Europe's best biotechnology researchers are working within the TEMPOtest project to develop and validate rapid point-of-care diagnostics to enable physicians to make better judgements about when to - and when not to - prescribe antibiotics.

In a world with a virtually empty drug pipeline in the field of antimicrobials due to big pharma pulling out of research efforts during the last decade, a new spirit of innovation in anti-microbial drug discovery is being nurtured within the academic institutes in Europe. Projects such as AEROPATH, AntipathoGN and DIVINOCELL are working from both sides of the problem to identify new molecular targets in bacteria and also to find out how more of the naturally-occurring antibiotic products can be exploited as potential drug candidates.

The enormous amount of research being undertaken in universities across Europe should secure a vast and deepening knowledge base in this area, making it an enticing prospect for any graduates seeking to forge a career in biological, clinical or healthcare research in Europe.