Scientific breakthrough in farming could alleviate human antibiotics time bomb

The discovery of an organism able to target harmful bacteria and leave ‘good’ bacteria intact in pigs could be poised to drive a long term change in how people with drug-resistant infections are treated.

The ground-breaking agricultural research, which was carried out by Professor Martha Clokie and her team at the University of Leicester and funded by farmers through levy body AHDB Pork, isolated 20 bacteriophages – or bacterial viruses – that target 72 strains of potentially drug-resistant bacteria that can cause gut problems in pigs.

The discovery suggests that bacteriophages could accompany or replace antibiotics used to treat bacterial disease across all types of livestock, helping safeguard the future of some drugs of ‘last resort’ in human medicine that the farming industry has already voluntarily restricted.

The breakthrough could also help speed the development of similar applications in human medicine, addressing the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria that a report1 last year suggested could be killing as many as 10 million people a year by 2050 through drug-resistant infections.

The development has been welcomed by RUMA, the agricultural and food industry alliance which promotes responsible use of medicines in farm animals.

RUMA Secretary General John FitzGerald says: “The issue of antibiotic resistance is one shared by human and animal medicine, and a number of initiatives across medical and veterinary sciences are attempting to understand and reduce the spread of resistance genes in bacteria.

“Phage technology is in fact fairly old, but its development stalled because antibiotics were – until recently – very effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria. However, the build-up of resistance has created new opportunities for phage technology; a discovery such as this could be a real game-changer, not just helping the farming industry to steward antibiotics more effectively but potentially speeding up the development of human medical applications.”

Dr Charlotte Evans, Technical Senior Manager with AHDB Pork, explains bacteriophages are found everywhere in the environment, in humans and animals, so they can be regarded as a ‘natural’ defence.

She says: “There’s still a long way to go in terms of trials and licensing but we are very pleased this research, which was started two years ago, has already yielded such promising results.

“Bacteriophage treatment is about using increased volumes of something that is already present to target harmful bacteria. Research suggests they do not harm other organisms because the relevant receptor is not present.”

She adds that the next step is to determine whether bacteriophages could be applied via spray, injection or vaccination, or by adding to feed or water.

Around 37% of the UK’s antibiotics are currently used for treating disease in farm animals. The latest sales data shows there was a 10% fall in sales of antibiotic products into farming between 2014 and 2015.


[1] O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally. May 2016