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Animal antibiotics – a new perspective on a growing problem

Most antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections in humans are also used in animals, which is a leading cause of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) around the world.

Microbiologist Dr Alice Moorey and her colleagues are pioneering a new approach to this problem. They are discovering and developing exclusive animal antibiotics, so that we can preserve existing human drugs for when we really need them.

Alice’s journey into AMR research began in the world of art, where she studied the history of medicine and explored old surgical apparatus.

Artefacts like brain drills for tumour removal are bone-chilling. What is scarier is the fact that these procedures were done without the most important measure to stop the patient dying from post-surgical infections: antibiotics.”

Now working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Biology Lab at the IOI, Alice knows all-too-well how AMR can turn the clock back to a pre-antibiotic era where any infection could turn deadly. “Routine surgeries, chemotherapy and even a cut or scrape can be life-threatening without antibiotics. We need to reduce AMR at the source, before time runs out.” says Alice.

One of the major causes of AMR is the overuse of human antibiotics in agriculture and animal feed. Almost 80% of antibiotics sold worldwide are used are for livestock. “There is there is no easy fix, farmers can’t suddenly stop using any antibiotics for animals; animal welfare and food production would suffer greatly, as would their own livelihoods.”, explains Alice.

However, the bacteria that cause infections in a person versus a chicken or a cow or a pig are not necessarily the same. It’s this discrepancy that researchers at IOI are trying to exploit- to identify new animal-specific drugs that are distinct from their counterparts used in human healthcare. Ultimately, their goal is to produce a sustainable antibiotic treatment that is also an affordable practical solution for the farming community.

So how is the team at the IOI doing this? Firstly, they screen lots of different drugs against common bacteria that infect animals. Some of these drugs are known antibiotics, others are designed and synthesised by IOI’s chemistry lab who work in collaboration with Alice’s team looking for novel antibiotic compounds.

Screening drugs is not a new concept to a research community that has been actively hunting for a new antibiotic for over 20 years, but the key here is that other labs around the world are looking for new human drugs - Alice is looking for animal ones.

IOI’s researchers across biology and chemistry work in collaboration to identify potential drug candidates from the microbiology screening results. The chemists then interrogate this drug further, conducting experiments to finetune its antibiotic properties, with the hope of eventually developing a new animal antibiotic.

It is a privilege to work with biochemists, microbiologists and pharmacologists in the same space. Without these different perspectives we wouldn’t know what we were missing, because this collaboration produces questions that working in silos we would never know to ask. And these questions lead us one step closer to a solution.”

Learn more about animal antibiotics research at the IOI here.