Leeds research network to tackle major global health threat

Talking about
Research and collaboration relating to antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the top ten global health threats facing humanity. Misuse and overuse of anti-infective drugs like antibiotics has contributed to bacteria and other microorganisms becoming resistant to the medicines we use to combat infections, making those infections harder to treat.

If the issue isn’t addressed urgently, by 2050 ten million deaths are expected to be directly caused by antimicrobial resistance (AMR) each year.

The challenge is so complex that no one discipline or approach can tackle it alone. So when Stuart Taberner and Samantha Aspinall began formulating their ideas for the Horizons Institute, which brings researchers from different disciplines together to tackle global challenges, AMR was an obvious place to start.

It became one of the earliest research areas at the University of Leeds to receive the kind of support now being formalised through the Horizons Institute.

AMR is such a huge problem that rarely gets the attention it deserves. We wanted to mobilise the full range of research from across the University that touches on this global challenge to maximise its impact in the interest both of excellent research and the global good.

Stuart Taberner, Horizons Institute Director

Initial connections

Stuart and his team helped to set up and facilitate the first meetings between relevant academics and supported them to secure pump-priming funding from the University – and so the Antimicrobial Network (AMR@Leeds) was born.

The team was, however, pushing at an open door: Leeds researchers working in the field had long been aware that wider collaboration would be beneficial, but needed that support within the University to make it happen.

Professor Alex O’Neill is the network’s co-lead. He says: “To effectively tackle AMR, you need basic science to understand the hows and whys of resistance, alongside more applied research to reduce as far as possible the rate with which resistance occurs and to develop new medicines.

“But we also need to increase public awareness and engagement, to build strong AMR governance and to ensure that there is sufficient financial investment in AMR-related activities. It’s a very multi-faceted challenge and no single area of research will address it alone.”

Alex, co-lead Dr Rebecca King and post-doctoral researcher Dr Jessica Mitchell began with a scoping exercise, looking both at relevant research being undertaken at the University and also how this mapped against national and international guidance on the activities needed to address AMR globally.

They identified eight areas and found that University of Leeds researchers were already working in almost all of them, making Leeds one of the biggest and most multidisciplinary research groups on AMR in the UK.

The network was about to begin a seminar series to introduce network members to other areas of research across the University when the pandemic hit. Again, the kind of support now provided through the Horizons Institute proved instrumental.

“Samantha Aspinall gave us the encouragement and support we needed to run the seminar series online,” Rebecca recalls. “We had a fantastic response, with many seminars having up to 60 people taking part. One of the most exciting things about the network is the breadth of research that we can draw on at Leeds.”

New collaborations

Already, new collaborations are taking root. Alex, who is based in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, has begun working with Dr Laura Carter from the School of Geography to look at what levels of antibiotic residues in soil drive the emergence of resistance in the environment.

Thanks to a further round of funding through the Horizons Institute, AMR@Leeds has been able to hold its first face-to-face meeting of the network and employ a research officer to facilitate interactions and support research collaborations across the network.

Agenda setting

But rather than just passively responding to funding calls, the network is also hoping to shape the AMR research agenda. Alex, Rebecca and Jess have published a framework for AMR research, adapted from the scoping and mapping exercise they carried out at the University.

The paper, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, also identifies limitations and gaps in national and international guidance on AMR, which risks some areas of research being overlooked.

“AMR is a complex, interdisciplinary problem and many funding organisations struggle to structure appropriate funding calls,” says Rebecca. “We hope that the network can not only support AMR research at Leeds, but also help to identify some of the critical questions that need be addressed.”