Nearly £5m has been awarded to two flagship research projects into antimicrobial resistance, in one of the largest UK public grant investments in this area.

The grants will go to researchers at the University of Warwick (£3.19m) and the University of Cambridge (£1.58m), and will involve multi-partner collaborations to tackle the growing threat of superbugs.

The money has been awarded by the cross research council war cabinet on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – an initiative established in 2014 as a coordinated, multidisciplinary effort to fight the rise of superbugs – and is one of the largest UK public grant investments in this area, according to the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

At Warwick, Chris Dowson and his team will investigate a vital link in the chain of AMR – the bacterial cell wall. The main component of the wall is called peptidoglycan, which is the key target of penicillin and other similar antibiotics.

Despite its important role, little is known about how peptidoglycan is made and how antibiotics interfere with it at the biochemical, structural and cellular levels.

This landmark project will pull together a unique group of world leaders in bacterial chemistry, genetics, physics and physiology in the area of peptidoglycan metabolism, structure and architecture. Academia, the pharmaceutical industry and charities will work hand in hand, on a global scale, in the hope to unlock new types of antibiotics.

At the University of Cambridge, lead researcher Mark Holmes will look into the effects of antibiotic use on the entire population of animal gut flora, not just the disease causing bacteria.

His work, using research in pigs, will help us to understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance and make better choices about how to reduce the spread of antimicrobial resistance on farms.

This is important not just for human health, but also in our farming industry, which has a high dependence on blanket treatments of antibiotics, increasing the chances of developing resistance.

Dr Holmes said the rise of antibiotic resistance was a threat to human and animal health.

“While increasing agricultural efficiency has delivered ever cheaper food it has also led to greater levels of infectious disease on farms requiring antibiotic treatment,” he said.

“The use of antibiotics to treat groups of animals inevitably leads to the selection of resistant strains of bacteria on farms. By understanding how antibiotic resistance evolves, we hope to be able to inform smarter use of the drugs and stem – and even reverse – the tide of resistance.”

The UK research councils have ring-fenced £33.5m from the current spending round in an initiative to improve understanding of resistance and, ultimately, the ability to develop new drugs and therapies. These two new grants will run for four to five years.

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