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Antibiotics: past, present and a future?

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Published on Nov 19, 2015

In many ways the post war years were a golden era for modern medicine. As our knowledge and understanding of the plethora of microbes that cause infectious diseases steadily increased, it felt as if the common infections that had stalked humanity for millennia were being systematically eradicated. Hygiene measures were improving and we had increased the reach of our vaccination programs. We also discovered antibiotics, a range of 'magic bullets' that looked set to change the face of modern medicine by destroying the microbes that caused infections. Not only were we learning to prevent infectious disease, we could also cure them.

Sadly this age of optimism was short lived as the microbial world fought back; once again we seem to be in an era where infections are life threatening. The arsenal of antibiotics that we have at our disposal is becoming much less effective and treatment failures are increasing. Bacteria, viruses and fungi are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics and inappropriate use of these valuable medicines has added to the problem. Society is rapidly approaching a situation where we may be unable to prevent or treat everyday infections or diseases.

This worrying state of affairs has coincided with the development pipeline for new antibiotics reducing to an all-time low. This 'perfect storm' has led to a raft of global initiatives designed to encourage renewed investment in antibiotic discovery and production. In addition, as a global society we are being asked to work together to conserve the antibiotics that we have left in order to extend their shelf life by using them in an optimal and economical way. What is empowering is that we all have an opportunity to make a positive impact on this life-threatening situation. Although it is extremely unlikely that we will be able to eradicate this natural process of antibiotic resistance there is potential for society to take a multidisciplinary approach to minimise its impact on our heath both now and in the future.

Laura Bowater began her academic career at the University of Dundee graduating with an MSc and a PhD in microbial biochemistry. She continued her scientific research at the John Innes Centre. Laura has combined her interest in Antimicrobial resistance and her passion for science communication and is currently leading a brand new, interdisciplinary research project focused on public engagement with the global problem of antibiotic resistance (ARM). She also enjoys teaching medical sciences in the Norwich Medical School.

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