Searching the natural world for a solution to deadly drug-resistant bacteria

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Samples are collected using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) [IMAGE SUPPLIED]
Samples are collected using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) [IMAGE SUPPLIED]

Drug-resistant infections caused by the misuse of antibiotic treatments killed over 1.2 million people worldwide in 2019. Without global action, this silent pandemic is projected to lead to 10 million deaths every year by 2050. People living in low-to-middle-income countries with limited access to new and effective antibiotics will be most affected.

A major challenge to combating drug-resistant infections is a lack of new drugs being developed. To address this issue, scientists from South Africa’s Rhodes University and the University of Plymouth in the UK have set up an Antimicrobial Drug Discovery Hub. Researchers working under the hub are searching for and evaluating novel antibiotics to combat ‘ESKAPE pathogens’ – a group of bacteria which cause most hospital infections around the world. Their growing resistance to antibiotics threatens lifesaving modern medical interventions, such as caesarean sections, organ transplants, and chemotherapy, which cannot be safely performed without effective antibiotics.

Natural products from living animals, plants, and microbes, and their synthetic analogues, are the basis for most antibiotics in clinical use today. The marine environment is filled with diverse animal and microbial species, many of which have not yet been investigated for natural products. Researchers are using new technologies such as remotely operated vehicles powered by machine learning and AI to explore deep-sea environments. They hope to unlock the potential of South Africa’s rich biodiversity to discover and develop new and effective antibiotics.

This UK-SA science collaboration brought together ecologists, biochemists, microbiologists, and biologists. The team used their expertise to isolate and evaluate antimicrobial natural products using established screening platforms at the University of Cape Town-based Holistic Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D). When the project progresses into the clinical development phase, the manufacturing of new antibiotics will not only boost capacity for drug discovery but support the future growth of bio-economies in the UK and South Africa.

A core aim of the partnership was to expand drug discovery research capacity and infrastructure in South Africa. This has included supporting early career researchers through student exchange programmes between UK and South African institutions and scientific expeditions on the S. A. Agulhas II. The team have also established a South African Natural Products Research Network to foster collaboration and provide training and access to specialised infrastructure, such as a screening platform for identifying antimicrobial natural products. The network’s ambition for the future is to develop sustainable drug discovery capacity across the African continent and engage in policy forums for the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for Africans to build drug discovery and development capacity to provide African solutions to African health challenges, including therapeutics and vaccines. My motivation for initiating this project stems from my commitment to the development of a sustainable South African drug discovery hub that will provide regional capacity to address this problem.” – Rosemary Dorrington, DST/NRF SARChI Professor in Marine Natural Products at Rhodes University

Find out more about this research project in this video:


Project leads: Professor Rosemary Dorrington, Rhodes University, South Africa, and Professor Matthew Upton, University of Plymouth, UK.

Supporting project partners: University of Aberdeen, University of Bristol, University of Leeds, University of St Andrews, UK, and Cape Town University of Technology, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Delivery partners: Medical Research Council part of UK Research and Innovation, and the South African Medical Research Council, South Africa.