It sounds like something from a dystopian nightmare: the rise of superbugs causing the death of 10 million people around the world every year by 2050.
And the cause of such global carnage would be the insidious antibiotic-resistant strains of such infections as MRSA and E.coli, preying on the immune systems of the young, old, sick and vulnerable.
But now, there are hopes that a revolutionary new treatment could be ready within the next decade to help tackle the scourge – and it has been created and is currently being developed in Aberdeen.
The research work has been carried out by the 15 employees who work at NovaBiotics in the heart of the Granite City, which by immunologist Deborah O’Neil in 2004.
Dr O’Neil said: “The government commissioned a report from economist Lord Jim O’Neill and he not only concluded there would be 10 million deaths caused by antimicrobial resistance (AMR) by the midway point of this century, but he estimated it would also cost healthcare systems trillions of pounds every year. It’s staggering.
“According to the latest World Health Organisation (WHO) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC) figures, 7000,000 people are dying already every year because of AMR.
“Quite simply, existing antibiotics are increasingly proving ineffectual against such bugs as MRSA and E.coli and we are looking at the prospect of scary numbers of people dying unless we find new ways to tackle the problem in new ways.
“That is one of the driving forces behind all the hard work which we have been doing at NovaBiotics in the last 13 years. And, although these are early days, I really believe we have made a breakthrough and it could have dramatic results in the future.
“We have already produced a new treatment to help those with cystic fibrosis and it’s exciting to be involved in these developments at the moment. Most people in Aberdeen probably have no idea about the research we are doing in their midst, but the threat posed by MRSA and other infections is real – it’s very real – and we are hopefully advancing with frontline therapies, rather than simply trying to put a sticking plaster on the wound.”
The new drug is in the process of being developed into various formats, including creams, sprays and inhalers, and its unique feature is that it is based on proteins which are found in the human body’s natural
defences. As Dr O’Neil pointed out, there is no value in merely producing stronger versions of existing antibiotics: these would simply be the catalyst for the emergence of more powerful bugs, and so the vicious circle would continue.
She added: “We went back to the drawing board and found products that kill bacteria in their own immune system. We discovered that peptides, which are simple proteins that live in any part of the body where there is a natural barrier such as the skin or the gut lining, actually form part of the body’s own defence against bacteria.
“So we developed them into this product. And it could be developed into a gel or cream and put into a patient’s nose – which is where MRSA lives – to kill it, or onto wounds to prevent infection. Or it could be used if a patient is seriously ill with an infection by being put into an intravenous drip or an injection.
“There are no quick fixes with these things. We have to go through clinical trials and convince the regulatory bodies – and that’s as it should be, because you should never compromise on safety or cut corners when it comes to public health.
“But, although it is a long process, and I have little doubt antibiotic resistance is going to get worse before it gets better, there are lots of small-to-medium enterprises such as ours thinking outside the box. And, in the next five to 10 years, this feels like a true breakthrough.
“Basically, the fact it is not an antibiotic means we can use it to prevent infections as well as treat infections, because bugs cannot develop any resistance to it.”
Dr O’Neil has a serious pedigree in cutting-edge research. In addition to her role as chief executive of NovaBiotics, she is a member of the Scottish Life Sciences Advisory Board, sits on the newly-formed life science board of Opportunity North East (ONE) and is a trustee of the Crohn’s in Childhood Research Association.
But she admitted she had to persevere in the early days while she built up her business and expanded her horizons in the north-east.
As she said: “I’ve researched how the body fights infection and regulates inflammation since my time as a PhD student. I moved to Aberdeen in 2001 after stints as a postdoctoral researcher in California and Belgium to take up an academic research position at the Rowett Institute.
“At that time, there was a push, locally and nationally, across Scotland for academics to consider and secure funding for commercially/clinically applicable elements of their life science research.
“The idea behind what is now NovaBiotics had been a seed for some time and this allowed me to take the first steps – absolutely a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“The business overall and the research – whether it’s for clinical trials, safety testing, lab research and development or safety testing – only really consumes the parts of my life when I’m awake.
“But I love what I do – luckily. We’ve made fantastic progress and come a long way in 13 years: we’ve raised £20million to finance the business, completed two highly significant commercial deals, secured hundreds of patients and we have a portfolio of ultra-high value antimicrobial candidates to take forward.
“These drugs – if successful in completing their development – will save lives, which is ultimately why we do what we do at NovaBiotiocs.”
She and her team’s pioneering efforts were acclaimed yesterday by Ken Lawton, a former GP, who is now a senior lecturer in clinical General Practice at Aberdeen University.
He said: “They have opened a new door and that is very important, because if we don’t find new ways of dealing with MRSA and other infections, we are going to be in trouble as a species, because there will be epidemics of these conditions in the future.
“It is not a golden dawn. I think we always have to be cautious in these matters and see how the clinical trials progress, but the fact is we are in a situation where more and more people are taking their MRSA into hospital with them and they are not coming back out.
“That is one of the most pressing issues which we face in tackling these bugs: if you are a person who is frail or debilitated, there is a very real prospect that MRSA or E.coli will kill you. And with an ageing population who are spending more and more time in hospital… it is a very worrying state of affairs which urgently needs addressed.
“That is why this news is exciting. And the fact it has come out of Aberdeen – well, we should all be rejoicing.”
Scientists and medical experts understandably tend to be wary about shouting from the rooftops. But Mr Lawton’s positive reaction to the NovaBiotics news was shared by Professor Hugh Pennington, a former advisor to the UK Government on microbiology, who has dealt with too many instances of E.coli outbreaks.
He said: “This is a very welcome move, as we definitely do need new and effective antimicrobials.
“However, it needs to be available at a reasonable cost to the NHS. It must go through all the necessary clinical testing and it must be used wisely, because bacteria are very good at exploiting evolution.”
The next step for Dr O’Neil revolves around advancing with the development of the important new drugs, Novexatin and oral Lynovex.
She is also aiming to replicate the success of earlier stage compounds such as Novamycin and Novarifyn, but it is likely to be at least five years before the new treatments are widely available.
Yet Dr O’Neil is confident the challenges facing the oil and gas sector in the north of Scotland will provide further impetus to the medical research milieu in the years ahead.
As she added: “It’s by no means been easy to get the business to the exciting point where we are now, but it is great to be taking the company further forward at a timer when the local economic landscape is evolving and diversifying – with life sciences now recognised as one of the economic pillars for the north-east.
“There is so much talent and potential in this sector locally and a real opportunity for other technologies and businesses to come through – and hopefully with less challenges to face.
“Aberdeen has 500 years of biomedical innovation heritage and produces first-rate scientists.”
A spokeswoman for NHS Grampian said: “We are delighted that Aberdeen is once again leading the way in valuable research across a host of clinical specialties.
“This groundbreaking work could potentially benefit the health and wellbeing of not only our local population in the north east, but globally.”