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Ineos gives Oxford University £100m for antibiotic research

What’s Happening? Chemicals company Ineos has donated £100m ($136.2m) to the University of Oxford to form an institute to focus on antimicrobial resistance. The Ineos Oxford Institute (IOI) for antimicrobial resistance will include more than 50 postdoctoral researchers, along with a number of PhD students, who will work to develop drugs for humans and animals over the next five years. The public-private partnership will also promote the more responsible use of current antibiotics to stem the rise of drug-resistant infections.

The broader picture – Original reports noted the institute will work on drugs for humans and animals, but it has since transpired that it will focus on novel antibiotics for animals only. IOI project lead and head of organic chemistry at the University of Oxford, Christopher Schofield, explained to The Guardian this is because of an overlap between some antibiotics – such as penicillin and tetracycline – that are used in both humans and animals, so there’s a need to separate the two. The aim of concentrating on animal antibiotics is to safeguard those for human use.

Why does this matter? While this appears to be a sensible approach, not everyone agrees. For example, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics raised concerns introducing antibiotics for animal-use-only may lead to an increase in intensive farming methods. These can give rise to new antibiotic-resistant infections and viruses with pandemic potential in humans. As the alliance notes, the best way to reduce antibiotic resistance in livestock is to prohibit antibiotic use while moving to less-intensive farming.

Pressure is mounting on the food industry to be more responsible about antibiotic use in farming. For example, the recently launched Investor Action on AMR, in part, aims to encourage food companies to reduce the use of non-essential antibiotics in their production processes. If novel animal-only use antibiotics arrive in the next five to 10 years, however, as is the aim of the IOI, farmers may see no need to change methods.

What about humans? Creating animal-only antibiotics may, to some extent, reduce the threat of antibiotic resistance, but it won’t completely solve the problem. Novel antibiotics are needed for humans too, especially as some infections are already very difficult to treat. Compounding the issue, it’s estimated antibiotic resistant diseases could become responsible for 10 million deaths annually by 2050 causing $100tn damage to the global economy. A lack of effective antibiotics also makes medical procedures such as chemotherapy, organ transplants and c-sections far more dangerous.

Faced with these grim predictions, scientists are scouring for sources of antimicrobials that could be used to create new antibiotics for human use. One example is the Wistar Institute, where researchers have identified a class of antimicrobial compounds that stimulate the immune system. These are claimed to be more potent than current best-in-class antibiotics and are non-toxic to human cells. As with all drugs, however, the R&D process will take many years before a product can come to market.

A generous donation? The £100m donation to the University of Oxford was one of the biggest in its history. It may be thought extremely generous, but it’s worth noting that Ineos’ Chairman is billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliff – one of the UK’s richest people, before he left the country for Monaco. It’s estimated that move will save around £4bn ($5.5bn) in taxes that would have been paid to the UK government.

Ineos Automotive also pulled the plug on plans to manufacture its new 4×4 cars in Bridgend, Wales which would have created 200-500 jobs. Instead, it was decided that production be shifted to Hambach in France, following a deal with Daimler – a bitter pill for the UK automotive industry which is facing losses owing to Brexit.

Nicola Watts

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