Not one new class of antibiotic has been discovered since 1987, yet the bugs keep developing resistance to antibiotics. A UK government report recently estimated that antimicrobial resistance could kill 300 million people by 2050 and cost up to €300 trillion.
“We are not generating new antibiotics and resistance is increasing,” says Dr Fiona Walsh at Maynooth University.
This is not a man-made problem, but taking antibiotics when they are not needed can make the situation worse.
“Resistance comes about because we use antibiotics, but it is also a natural process. Antibiotics originally came from environmental micro-organisms,” explains Walsh.
If antibiotics are naturally present in soil and water, bugs naturally develop resistance to them.
“I am interested in how wastewater treatment plants get rid of antibiotic resistance bacteria (or not as the case may be) and how these might get back into our environment,” she explains.
Walsh also looks at specific pieces of DNA that give bugs the ability to resist antibiotics. Bugs can also swap these resistance tools between themselves, she says.
“We look at the DNA and try to figure out which are the most likely resistance elements in the environment that will put humans at risk in the future or which are in humans and may get out into the environment,” she adds.
“We have the Water Framework Directive in Europe, which gives [countries] guidelines and standards that they need to achieve with respect to the types of chemicals not allowed in the water and the type of bacteria that are not allowed to be released into the water,” says Walsh. “[However], antibiotic resistance is not identified in terms of risk.”
If there is more resistance in the environment, this can get back into the bacteria that cause disease.
Walsh is part of StARE, a large European project that is investigating the role wastewater treatment plants can play in stopping antibiotic resistance escaping into our waterways.
StARE involves six other partners – including researchers in Portugal, Spain, Germany, Finland and Cyprus – and looks at novel technologies that might be added to wastewater treatment plants to improve the situation.
The project brings together engineers, chemists and biologist. “We bring the expertise in the antibiotic resistance and also an Irish aspect,” explains Walsh.
Ultimately, the project hopes to point the way towards reducing the antibiotic resistant bacteria and the genetic parts that confer resistance that circulate in the environment and, in particular, make their way through wastewater treatment plants.