Research pinpoints viruses to protect pigs versus germs

Friendly bacteria that could replace antibiotics to treat pigs have been identified by a University of Leicester team funded by farmers through AHDB Pork.

The groundbreaking agricultural research has isolated 20 bacteriophages – or bacterial viruses – that target 72 strains of potentially drug-resistant bacteria that can cause gut problems in pigs. The work was carried out by Professor Martha Clokie and her team at the University of Leicester.

The discovery suggests that bacteriophages could accompany or replace antibiotics used to treat bacterial disease across all types of livestock. That could provide a way to tackle harmful bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, safeguarding the future of some drugs of ‘last resort’ in human medicine.

The O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, published in May last year, suggested antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be killing as many as 10 million people a year by 2050 through drug-resistant infections.

“There’s still a long way to go in terms of trials and licensing but we are very pleased this research, which was started two years ago, has already yielded such promising results,” said Dr Charlotte Evans, technical senior manager with AHDB Pork. Evans said bacteriophages were found everywhere in the environment, in humans and animals, so could be regarded as a ‘natural’ defence.

“Bacteriophage treatment is about using increased volumes of something that is already present to target harmful bacteria. Research suggests they do not harm other organisms because the relevant receptor is not present.”

She added that the next step was to determine whether bacteriophages could be applied via spray, injection or vaccination, or by adding to feed or water.

The development has been welcomed by RUMA, the agricultural and food industry alliance which promotes responsible use of medicines in farm animals.

John FitzGerald, secretary general for RUMA, welcomed the development: “The issue of antibiotic resistance is one shared by human and animal medicine, and a number of initiatives across medical and veterinary sciences are attempting to understand and reduce the spread of resistance genes in bacteria.

“Phage technology is in fact fairly old, but its development stalled because antibiotics were – until recently – very effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria. However, the build-up of resistance has created new opportunities for phage technology; a discovery such as this could be a real game-changer, not just helping the farming industry to steward antibiotics more effectively but potentially speeding up the development of human medical applications.”

Around 37% of the UK’s antibiotics are currently used for treating disease in farm animals. The latest sales data shows there was a 10% fall in sales of antibiotic products into farming between 2014 and 2015.

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