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Training future leaders to solve antimicrobial resistance

Modern medicine relies heavily on antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs. We use them to treat everything from minor illnesses to life threatening bacterial infections, and to make all kinds of surgery and cancer treatments safer.

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Emerging research leaders

However, antimicrobials are becoming less effective. The overuse and misuse of these precious drugs has led to the rise of resistant strains of bacteria which pose a great threat to global health. Drug-resistant infections kill hundreds of thousands of people every year across the world. Without urgent action, some routine medical procedures and operations will become dangerous, many common infections will become untreatable, and millions of lives will be lost.

Professor Matthew Avison leads a research group at the University of Bristol studying antimicrobial resistance. He feels that in high-income countries like the UK, where people place a lot of trust in vaccination and existing antimicrobial drugs, antimicrobial resistance had been largely overlooked by the government and the media for many years. This, according to Matthew, meant the issue had been de-prioritised for research investment, while non-infectious illnesses like cancer and heart disease received more interest.

700,000

people die each year due to drug-resistant infections and without action, this could reach 10 million deaths by 2050.

Matthew Avison Credit University Of Bristol Professor Matthew Avison, University of Bristol. (Photo credit: University of Bristol)

Multiple problems, multiple solutions

Antimicrobial resistance has traditionally been seen as something to be solved by microbiologists, scientists who study bacteria and other microbes. The reality is that antimicrobial resistance does not have one simple solution. Instead, the problem needs to be looked at from multiple angles, involving researchers from fields including ecology, engineering, anthropology, physics, and behavioural sciences.

We are part of a consortium of research funders which has recognised that a new approach to antimicrobial resistance is needed.

We invited applications to create a unique PhD training programme in antimicrobial resistance research. And in 2018, the first cohort of 16 students began their studies, followed by a further 14 students in a second cohort in 2019.

The PhD programme, led by Professor Avison, has interdisciplinary research at its core. The aim is to break down the barriers between different areas of science, to help the students understand and ‘speak the language’ of each other’s research.

To achieve this, the students have two supervisors drawn from different research disciplines, rather than just one. They also undergo placements and cohort building events to see first-hand the factors which influence antimicrobial resistance. Matthew and his team also established a residential training programme, where over 150 PhD students from around the UK learn about multi-disciplinary research and the problems of antimicrobial resistance.

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Our 2018 and 2019 AMR PhD students.

Nidhee Jadeja Credit Tiffany Tsang High Quality Nidhee Jadeja, Imperial College London (Photo credit: Tiffany Tsang)

"We're building this for the future"

One of the Foundation-funded PhD students, Nidhee Jadeja from Imperial College London, is studying how to improve public policies in low-resource hospital settings, in order to tackle antimicrobial resistance. Her project will provide insights on the health and cost impacts of policy strategies for decision-makers.

“Being part of the PhD cohort has been fantastic,” says Nidhee. “It is a really supportive community of inspiring people, answering all types of interesting questions about antimicrobial resistance. I’ve been able to widen my perspective on the different aspects and approaches to understanding antimicrobial resistance, in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Although there have been lots of exciting developments from individual projects, Matthew believes that the biggest impact of the programme will be seen in the future. His hope is that it will create a group of leaders in research, policy, and other areas of public life, who understand antimicrobial resistance and can bring a collaborative ethos to wherever their career leads them. As he puts it: “We’re building this for the future.”