Professor Edward Feil from the University’s Milner Centre for Evolution is to be part of an inter-disciplinary research consortium led by the University of Bristol that has been awarded £2.9m from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to help tackle the growing incidence of antibacterial resistance in Thailand.

Antimicrobial resistance and specifically antibacterial (antibiotic) resistance is a growing threat to human health and economic development across the globe. In Thailand, antibiotic resistance was estimated to cause 38,000 deaths with an economic loss of 1.2 billion USD in 2010.

This new study: “One Health Drivers of Antibacterial Resistance in Thailand”, aims to identify why antibiotic resistance is such a problem in Thailand, and what can be done about it.

The study will focus on two species of bacteria, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Escherichia coli. They are carried in the intestines of humans and animals and commonly contaminate the environment.

They move between these sites and are the cause of a large proportion of bacterial infections world-wide, including serious infections with high mortality rates. Increasingly, both species are resistant antibacterial drugs and they are recognised by the World Health Organisation as being amongst the highest priority pathogens globally for which new antibiotics are urgently needed.

Researchers will study whether two bacterial species transmit between animals and people directly or via the environment in Thailand, and how farm management practices, chemical pollution from agriculture and industry, and human behaviours around food preparation and antibiotic use influence transmission.

The study aims to build a holistic picture of what drives antibiotic resistance in Thailand by considering chemical, environmental, microbiological and socioeconomic factors. This will aid the Thai people by suggesting changes that can be made to reduce, or at least slow down the rise of this public health problem.

The study will collect data from sites including rivers, factories, animal farms, rice fields, fruit orchards, healthcare facilities and human communities. The majority of sample and data collection will be performed by researchers from Chulabhorn Research Institute and Mahidol University in Thailand.

Data analysis and intervention modelling will be led by UK researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Bath, Exeter and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxfordshire. The consortium will engage closely with Thailand's National Strategic Plan on antibiotic resistance, which aims to reduce resistance and improve human health in Thailand.

Professor Feil’s team from the Milner Centre for Evolution will be sequencing the genomes of the samples and analysing the data in order to understand how the different strains of Klebsiella are evolving and spreading within the environment, with a particular focus on antibiotic resistance.

Professor Feil said: "This project will provide critical data on how important antibiotic resistant bacterial strains are emerging and spreading within different habitats outside of hospitals due, in part, to the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the release of these compounds into the ecosystem.

“The focus on Thailand is important as there are comparatively few studies of this type in south-east Asia."

Principal Investigator, Dr Matthew Avison from the School of Cellular Molecular Medicine, University of Bristol said: “This is a challenging, ambitious and exciting project. Consortium members from Thailand and the UK will come together and build on existing strengths in antibiotic resistance research.

“We are provided with a wonderful opportunity to improve global health and we look forward to working together.”

The GCRF is a five year 1.5 billion-pound UK initiative set up to fund projects which work in partnership with Overseas Development Assistance countries to promote their economic and welfare development. It is jointly funded by the cross-research council AMR initiative and the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Global Health Research Programme.