In the 20th century, infectious diseases killed 1.6 billion people around the world, more than twice the number of people killed by cancer.
But in recent years very few new antibiotic drugs have been produced to fight off illnesses – and the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is growing, according to top medics.
So work to tackle the growing danger posed by infections impervious to available medicines is more important than ever.
Researchers at Sheffield University’s Florey and Imagine institutes are already working on new treatments, while Prime Minister David Cameron has tasked former city graduate Jim O’Neill with leading a panel of experts to set out plans for encouraging the development of the next generation of antibiotics.
Simon Foster, professor of molecular microbiology and director of the Imagine project, said society has ‘forgotten what it is like to be under the constant threat of infectious disease’.
“This is something we are seeing more and more of as pathogens become resistant to antibiotics,” he said.
“One of our failings is that we see the world from the perspective of a human timeframe. Diseases, of course, can adapt at dizzying speed, and our challenge is to wrong-foot them with innovative new treatments.”
Prof Foster said a ‘potentially dire situation’ could be on the horizon, but the Florey Institute has been set up specifically to tackle organisms resistant to drugs.
“The institute will take an approach that spans the fundamental life of pathogens, how they interact with us and how we develop new treatments and preventative regimes,” he said.
“This learning could help save countless lives across the world.”
The university has previous form for developing ground-breaking treatments.
In 1941, Sir Howard Florey, former chairman of pathology at the university, conducted the first ever clinical trials of penicillin – a drug which has since saved more than 82 million lives worldwide.
Professor Richard Jones, pro-vice chancellor of research and innovation at the university, said: “Since the discovery of penicillin and its development into a treatment, we’ve had a bit of an easy ride.
“But now there’s a race – microbes are developing resistance to existing antibiotics faster than we can develop new ones.
“Innovation in developing new antibiotics has slowed right down, and we’re in serious danger of losing this race.
“Our aim is to break down disciplinary barriers to address this massive problem.
“We’re bringing together microbiologists, clinicians, physicists and chemists to study pathogens and their interactions with the humans they infect.
“We’re developing new techniques so we can understand how pathogens work and find their weaknesses, in order to provide new types of treatment to help people combat infection.
“We’re really excited by this vision.”
Prof Alan Johnson, an expert in antibiotic resistance surveillance at Public Health England, has also called for extra measures to make sure any new antibiotics last longer.
“At a global level, we need to improve our antibiotic stewardship and infection prevention and control practices, as well as developing better diagnostic tests so that infections are treated with the most appropriate antibiotic at an early stage,” he said.
“Combined, these actions would help to stem the speed at which resistance to existing and new antibiotics develops and help to prolong the use of these critically important drugs.”
In an interview with The Times, Mr Cameron claimed the world faced being ‘cast back into the dark ages of medicine, where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again’.
In the past 60 years the pharmaceutical industry has produced three generations of antibiotics.
The first included natural penicillins. However, this group became ineffective as bacteria evolved enzymes that broke the drugs apart. The second were synthetic penicillins modified in the lab, but bugs gained resistance to the medications. The third generation were further modified, but microbes arrived in Britain that are immune even to these. In Sheffield, the Florey team is focusing on studies into streptococcus pneumoniae – the most common cause of meningitis and pneumonia. Researchers are also looking at another bacteria called staphylococcus aureus, source of the MRSA superbug in hospitals. Meanwhile the Imagine project is using hi-tech microscopes and imaging techniques to find answers to biological questions behind illnesses.