Irish research bags €1.5m to end antibiotic resistance

2 Mar 2023

Dr Stephen Cochrane. Image: QUB

Dr Stephen Cochrane of Queen’s University Belfast and his team of early-career researchers will develop chemical tools to find a whole new class of antibiotics.

A researcher in Ireland has bagged €1.5m in funding for a project that aims to discover and develop new antibiotics that can kill drug-resistant ‘superbugs’.

Dr Stephen Cochrane of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) has been awarded the European Research Council (ERC) funding today (2 March) to start the project titled New Hope along with five supporting early career researchers. The funding is a part of the ERC’s Starting Grants programme, which recognises exceptional early-career researchers with excellent track records that show great promise in becoming future research leaders.

Antimicrobial resistance, also known as AMR, is a major global health threat that accounts for more than 5m deaths a year, according to QUB. The trend is making it hard to treat serious infections ranging from pneumonia to those arising from wounds or in the bloodstream.

“Almost all our antibiotics work by crossing the cell membrane to get inside the cell, and once they are inside, they disrupt an essential process, which then kills the cell,” Cochrane explained.

“The problem is that many compounds can’t cross the cell membrane, and for those that do get inside, the cell can neutralise their effect, rendering them useless.”

Over the next five years, Cochrane and his team will focus on developing new ‘chemical tools’ that will hopefully be able to unearth a new range of antibiotics that are more capable in killing harmful bacteria than current antibiotics.

Cochrane said that antimicrobial resistance is “one of the greatest challenges” to human health today and that if it continues to develop at the current rate, the impact on global health and economy could be “much worse” than even Covid-19.

“In the past 60 years only five new classes of antibiotics have been approved for clinical use. A major hurdle in antibiotic discovery is finding antibiotics that can cross the cell membrane and overcome the resistance mechanisms of these cells,” he said.

“My project offers a new approach to antibiotic discovery. Instead of looking for targets inside the cell, I’ll focus on cell-surface targets.

“To do this, my team will use the tools of synthetic organic chemistry and molecular biology to develop new tools for antimicrobial discovery and unlock novel antibiotics.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic