Guest blog: Engineering a response to drug-resistant pathogens

Engineers and designers can help the world tackle the deadly threat posed by antimicrobial resistance, says Dr Colin Miles of UK Research and Innovation

It is estimated that 10 million people a year could lose their lives to antimicrobial resistance by 2050.
It is estimated that 10 million people a year could lose their lives to antimicrobial resistance by 2050. -

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is often described as a slow pandemic. The emergence of resistance in bacteria, fungi and other microbes that cause disease poses a significant threat to human, animal and plant health.

The long-term consequences of this creeping resistance could be terrible. It is estimated that 10 million people a year could lose their lives to it by 2050.

We have a good understanding of the mechanisms behind AMR but are less effective at turning that knowledge into effective ways of preventing it or treating it. 

Every time you use an antibiotic you run the risk of the target microbe becoming resistant to it. Not only that, when you release an antibiotic into the environment, you run the risk of other microbes becoming resistant to it too, which leads to resistance problems in the future.

What we do in the next five years is critical to tackling AMR. We know that understanding the bioscience alone will not solve it.

We need a much broader sweep of opinions and solutions on both prevention and treatment of resistance. I’ve always found that if you put together people who see things from different perspectives and have different takes on a problem, you get much more practical and robust solutions.

So yes, we need the bio-scientists and clinicians, but we also need social scientists to look at human behaviour, agriculturalists to look at farming practices and engineers, designers and technologists to look at how we optimise or improve the way we do things.

We are open to ideas from the engineering and design communities. How could you help us to improve the way we tackle AMR?

Ideally, we need longer term solutions for prevention and for treatments that do not involve more drugs. This is where engineers, designers and technologists can help us.

This might include the design of clinical environments for operations and the infection controls within those environments.

We are also talking about how you use antibiotics in agriculture as growth promoters and how pests and diseases are controlled. The classes of compounds we use to control fungal infections of crops are very close to those used on humans, so the scope for the development of resistance when they are used in the agricultural environment is high. Finding ways to better direct and control the release of these compounds could be hugely beneficial. 

We also need to think about the people and how they interact with societal systems, including culture and ethics. We need to be able to understand how to influence people’s behaviour if we want to make a difference in preventing or controlling resistance.

Ultimately, we are open to ideas from the engineering and design communities. Wherever there’s a piece of technology or a design, how could you help us to improve the way we tackle AMR?

That’s why UKRI, as part of its tackling infections area of priority, is currently putting £3 million into building a series of community networks across a broad base of disciplines to develop new ideas on AMR. You will be able to partner with these networks at any time during their lifetimes, whether you are working in research, business or other relevant areas.

You may not see an immediate benefit in linking up with these emergent networks, but I would urge you to give it a try. Some of our recent work in industrial biotechnology, particularly in the area of natural products, has helped to inspire a broader community approach to improving bio-based manufacturing. We are using this style of approach towards further developing the UK AMR community. You’ll find it intellectually stimulating and, in time, you may be inspired to come up with an idea that will help us.

I expect to see a range of communities established, able to talk the same language and interact with each other across disciplines and cultural boundaries. They will potentially offer new research and innovation activities through a flexible funding scheme open to the wider community and will help provide policy advice to government about how to control resistant microbes.

There will be a further £7 million to fund more intensive research and innovation activities that could come out of these networks or be inspired by them.

I’m based at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, and this work is one of our strategic priorities. Supported by colleagues across UKRI, including those working in biomedical, environmental, social science, arts and humanities and engineering and physical sciences, we’re keen to see as broad an involvement in these networks as we possibly can.

However, it is a golden ticket for engineers to think of ways to prevent or counter resistance or to engineer systems that could be used in the longer term to prevent or control AMR.

Dr Colin Miles is Head of Strategy and team leader for the Advanced Manufacturing and Clean Growth sector at BBSRC