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The rise of the superbug: putting the ‘ant’ into antibiotic


    In her latest blog, Lucy Crawford considers the issue of antibiotic resistance and how ants may hold the key to medical advances in this area.

    By Lucy Crawford

A review commissioned by then Prime Minster, David Cameron, in 2013 ‘Review of Antimicrobial Resistance’ estimates the current toll of people dying worldwide from antibiotic resistance infections is over 700,000.

If this were to go unchecked, by 2050 the estimated death toll would be 10 million.

In the UK, sepsis is the most common cause of death with over 44,000 deaths every year.

With no new antibiotic developments (only 2 new antibiotic classes have been introduced in the last 40 years) it seems we are not making enough progress to fight these deadly infections.

Causes of antibiotic resistance

There are a number of suggested causes for the increase in antibiotic resistance:

  • Over-prescription – There is far too much reliance on antibiotics for treating us when we fall ill.  They will have zero effect on a viral infection and yet they continued to be prescribed.
  • Farming – When properly used, antibiotics are clearly essential for treating infection in animals.  However, a considerable amount is used in healthy animals to prevent infection or speed up growth.
  • ‘Last resort’ human antibiotics being used extensively in animals.
  • Poor hygiene in hospitals and at home.
  • Poor understanding of the issues and a delay in recognising and treating signs of serious infection.
  • Poor surveillance to monitor these problems and failures to plot global progress


With such disastrous potential consequences, a significant amount of research is currently underway looking at alternatives to antibiotics. Research carried out at Oxford University looked at the effect of phages and viral phage therapy. The viruses that infect and kill bacteria are known as bacteriophages or phages.  It is estimated that there are more than 10 million trillion trillion phages in the world (which is more than any other organism on Earth combined!).  Initial research suggests encouraging results at successfully fighting infection, by exposing bacteria to phages.

Could ants hold the key to our survival?  

Leafcutter ants transport leaf sections of plant underground where it decays and forms a food source and fungus. To protect this, and to regulate the growth of the fungus, ants cultivate antibiotic-producing bacteria on their own bodies. This is found to be more soluble in water making it potentially extremely useful in human treatment.

It is possible we will be able to learn from how these ant systems protect themselves and their colonies against infection and, as a result, develop a better strain for use in human treatment.

What else can we do?

  • For mild infections, such as a cold, treat these at home for see your local pharmacist for advice and avoid using antibiotics
  • Consider having the flu vaccine annually
  • If you are prescribed antibiotics ensure that you carefully follow the instructions and do not share these with other people. Complete the full course of antibiotics even if your symptoms have resolved beforehand.

Please get in touch if you wish to discuss this blog or any other clinical negligence matter.



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