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New collaboration to tackle MRSA and skin infections

7 October 2011

A dermatologist, microbiologist, pharmacologist and a biotechnology company have joined forces on research into a new topical treatment for MRSA as well as other hard-to-treat bacterial skin infections.

Aberdeen researchers hope - in the long term - to develop a therapy which mimics naturally occurring molecules in the body called antimicrobial peptides that help fight infection.

Image of MRSA under the microscope taken from a hospital patient with an infected blister, taken by PhD student Markus Arnold

Image of MRSA under the microscope taken from a hospital patient with an infected blister. Image: Markus Arnold

If successful, this would be the first treatment of its kind - although it could take several years before such a therapy would be on the market.

The University of Aberdeen's Schools of Medicine & Dentistry and Medical Sciences, NHS Grampian and Aberdeen-based biotech Novabiotics are collaborating on the work, which is being funded by BBSRC - Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council via a CASE PhD studentship.

Healthcare acquired multi-drug resistant bacterial infections are a major public health concern with infections by MRSA alone costing the NHS millions of pounds each year.

Infections caused by other drug resistant bacteria are also on the rise and pose serious problems in the wounds of immune-compromised, intensive care and post-surgery patients.

Dr Anthony Ormerod, Honorary Consultant Dermatologist, NHS Grampian and Clinical Reader, Division of Applied Medicine, University of Aberdeen and said: "Hospitals and healthcare settings in the UK have introduced stringent hygiene measures to tackle MRSA and this has seen the rate of infection drop considerably".

"However, once contracted, MRSA is very difficult to treat and, aside from the health risks for patients, contracting the bacterium extends a patient's stay in hospital and adds to the burden on our health service.

"Our skin is our first defence against infections like MRSA, but if your skin has a wound, bacteria can get in which is why in clinical practice we are very dependent on hygiene and alcohol rubs for your hands, and on antibiotics for serious infections, although many bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.

"There is a huge gap between alcohol gels and antibiotics with no effective therapies in-between for infections like MRSA."

Dr Gail Ferguson is a Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology and Translational Medicine at the University of Aberdeen. She said: "Our long term goal is to come up with an entirely new topical treatment for MRSA and other bacterial skin infections which would be used together with existing methods.

"We are taking a real bench to bedside approach on this project bringing together expertise in microbiology, dermatology and drug development on our research which will explore the use of peptides as a potential treatment for bacterial skin infections.

"Cells in our bodies produce peptides which act as defenders against infections like MRSA. What we want to do is replicate and amplify these actions and hit MRSA and other infections hard."

NovaBiotics is a leading biotechnology company with drug candidates engineered from natural antimicrobial peptides already in clinical development for difficult to treat topical infections.

Company founder, Dr Deborah O'Neil, added: "We're very pleased to be involved in an exciting project that will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the clinical potential of antimicrobial peptides in complex skin and wound infections and how, in time, this novel approach to treatment can become part of standard practice.

"There are obvious clinical and economic reasons as to why it's vital that we push forward with research into new therapeutic approaches to tackling drug-resistant bacterial infections. The expertise and focus of the multi-disciplinary team involved in this project is exactly what's required for maximising chances of success in meeting what remains a significant biomedical challenge."

Professor Ruth Ross, a University of Aberdeen pharmacologist also involved in the project, added: "The University of Aberdeen's new Kostertliz Centre for Therapeutics is dedicated to working together with industry to produce valuable new treatments and the Novabiotics partnership is an exciting new opportunity for drug discovery in Aberdeen."

The research project begins this month following the appointment of PhD student Laura Katvars.

ENDS

Notes to editors

Dr Gail Ferguson, Dr Anthony Omerod and Professor Ruth Ross are available for interview. To arrange please contact: Jennifer Phillips or Joanne Rostron on 01224 273174.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .