Can technology overcome the antibiotic apocalypse?

Antibiotic resistance threatens humanity’s survival, what can tech do?

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today. Each year, 700,000 people across the globe die from drug resistant infections. According to the UK’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), this number could increase to 10 million if action is not taken. As if that wasn’t a high enough price to pay, the report also predicted that the global financial cost of antibiotic resistance could hit £69tn. While organisations across the world are working to alleviate antibiotic resistance, it appears that both the healthcare and agricultural industries are struggling to do the same.

Pharmas vs. farmers

Mass antibiotic resistance has come, ironically, from the over prescription of antibiotic drugs themselves. Overexposure to antibiotics enabled harmful pathogens to gradually adapt to counter them. Unfortunately, antibiotics have become the gold currency in healthcare, with many patients expecting to receive them and protesting when they don’t. Medical professionals have been criticised as handing over antibiotics too readily without considering other options. In agriculture, the situation is no better. Intensive farming has necessitated the use of powerful drugs to stop disease within livestock, but this could very easily backfire. Animals account for almost three quarters of global antibiotic use, with the US as a major culprit. US farm animals are thought to receive five times the amount of antibiotic medicine as their UK equivalents, according to calculations by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance in livestock is a problem in itself, but could even spread to humans through consumption. Post Brexit, US and UK trade agreements could undermine the work done by UK groups to limit the use of antibiotics. Simply using less of the drug, however, doesn’t solve the problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advocated a collective, society wide approach that combines individual and industrial efforts.

How will the reduced use of antibiotics disrupt industry players?

The most obvious impact will be felt by the pharmaceutical companies that supply antibiotics. If more farmers and medical facilities cut down on their use of antibiotics, pharmas could be left with excess supply. In fact, pharmas may want to distance themselves from antibiotics production before this becomes the case. At first, cutting back on the use and prescription of antibiotics could have negative effects. Healthcare professionals, for example, will have to handle disgruntled patients. They will also have to find new ways to stop the spread of infection which is a mammoth challenge alone. In terms of agriculture, farmers may be reluctant to curb the administration of antibiotic medicine to their livestock for fear of inviting disease. However, it’s a case of short term pain for long term gain as animals build stronger immune systems. The real task is convincing (or even coercing) the global agricultural community to get on board.

Tech to the rescue

If there was ever a worthy cause for innovative technology, it is saving lives. But to make a difference, researchers and organisations need a full understanding of the problem. Enter Big Data. By collecting and collating information about the spread of antibiotic resistance, policy makers and health professionals can work out the best ways of reducing it. Data analysis techniques like prescriptive analytics could suggest the most effective actions to take, and what this might mean for the industries and individuals involved. When putting this knowledge into practice, synthetic biology has an important role to play. In partnership with the National Physical Laboratory, University College London has engineered an artificial virus that kills bacteria on contact. Unlike traditional antibiotics, which must hit a single target within the bacterium’s cell, the artificial version attacks the bacterium as whole, destroying it within a few minutes. Synthetic biology has also played a central role in the development of meatless meats. The slow but steady rise of meatless alternatives could be instrumental in tackling antibiotic resistance, simply by shifting food production away from livestock. Another key area of development is nanoscience. Drug delivery could be vastly improved via nanocarriers, which travel more easily through the body to selectively kill pathogens. These academia driven alternatives are currently undergoing simulated testing, so their true effectiveness in humans remains uncertain.

The battle against antibiotic resistance is about finding new ways of attacking the problem, combining the efforts of academia, governments, healthcare organisations and the agricultural sector. Individuals also have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent infections, as well as altering their perspective of antibiotics as a wonder drug. So far, alternative bacteria killers like UCL’s artificial virus and nanocarriers have been developed in university research labs with official backing. Perhaps it’s time for tech companies to direct some of their extensive resources towards answering one of the most challenging questions hanging over humanity.

Could antibiotic resistance be the biggest issue facing humanity today? What other technologies could be leveraged in the fight against antibiotic resistance? To what extent do major tech companies have a responsibility to help? Share your thoughts and opinions.