Animal medicines, pig in mud

Scientists have claimed a breakthrough in agricultural research that could alleviate the antibiotic resistance “time bomb”.

Researchers have discovered an organism that is able to target harmful bacteria, but leave good bacteria intact in pigs, as part of a study funded by AHDB Pork.

The research looked at 20 bacterial viruses that could target 72 strains of potentially drug-resistant bacteria that cause gut problems in pigs. It found that these viruses, called bacteriophages, could either accompany or replace the antibiotics currently used to treat diseases in livestock.

The study, carried out by Professor Martha Clokie at the University of Leicester, could also help speed up the development of similar applications in human medicine to address the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“The issue of antibiotic resistance is one shared by human and animal medicine, and a number of initiatives across medical and veterinary sciences are attempting to understand and reduce the spread of resistance genes in bacteria,” said John FitzGerald, secretary general of agricultural and food industry alliance Ruma.

“Phage technology is in fact fairly old, but its development stalled because antibiotics were - until recently - very effective against a broad spectrum of bacteria. However, the build-up of resistance has created new opportunities for phage technology; a discovery such as this could be a real game-changer, not just helping the farming industry to steward antibiotics more effectively, but potentially speeding up the development of human medical applications.”

Dr Charlotte Evans, technical senior manager at AHDB Pork, said there was still a long way to go with trials and licensing, however she was “very pleased” with the research and its “promising results”.

The next step would be to determine whether the treatment could be applied via a spray, injection or vaccination, or by adding to feed or water, she added.

It comes as the UK pig sector cut the use of last resort antibiotic colistin by 70% last year, in response to concerns global overuse of the drug has encouraged resistance.