Researchers at the University of Bath are part of an international team of scientists that has developed ‘DNA photofits’ to quickly identify drug-resistant ‘superbug’ infections and track their spread across Europe. In the future, this approach may help doctors decide on the best treatments more quickly and help stop drug-resistant outbreaks.

Publishing their study in the scientific journal mBio, researchers at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath, Imperial College London and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute worked with a European network representing doctors from 450 hospitals in 25 countries to successfully interpret and visualise the spread of drug-resistant MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureus).

The scientists studied the whole-genome DNA sequences of bacteria and combined this with information on the drugs to which the bacteria were resistant, allowing them to build up a series of drug-resistance ‘DNA photofits’ to predict whether an outbreak is resistant to a specific drug.

MRSA and other superbugs are a life-threatening problem for all hospitals across Europe with an estimated 400,000 cases per year and 25,000 deaths from resistant, hospital-acquired infections.

To enable infection control teams across Europe to easily share information and to form a dynamic picture of the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the scientists from the newly formed Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance developed, a web-based visualisation and mapping tool.

Professor Ed Feil, joint lead author and Professor of Microbial Evolution in the University of Bath’s Department for Biology & Biochemistry, said: “We’ve developed user-friendly analysis software that demonstrates how whole genome sequence data can be a powerful tool for pan-European surveillance of MRSA and other important pathogens.

“Being able to track the spread of outbreaks across the whole continent allows policymakers to identify potential risks to public health and implement appropriate prevention and control strategies.”

Dr David Aanensen, head of the Centre for Genomic Pathogen Surveillance and joint lead author on the paper, added: “Drug resistance is a growing problem both in Europe and across the world and doctors need fast and accurate information to stop epidemics. Our study demonstrates the potential for combining whole-genome sequencing with internet-based visualisation tools to enable public health workers and doctors to see how an epidemic is spreading and make swift decisions to end it.”

The research team sequenced the whole genomes of S. aureus samples to identify which bugs are related to each other, and which are resistant to antibiotics. Using this approach, the scientists were not only able to show the rise and spread of MRSA across Europe, but also provide a quicker way to identify new hotspots of resistance.

Professor Hajo Grundmann, principal investigator on the study and Head of the Institute of Infection Prevention and Hospital Hygiene at the University Medical Centre Freiburg in Germany, said: “One of the problems is that these bacteria not only spread within and between hospitals, but they also change their genetic properties due to evolutionary processes over time. allows us to look at their evolution within the context of how they are spreading across Europe.”

85 per cent of the University’s Biological Sciences research was recently assessed as world-leading or internationally excellent in the recent independently-assessed Research Excellence Framework 2014.