Deaths from infections could be dramatically reduced if new Belfast academic research into antibiotic-resistant superbugs proves successful.
Scientists at Queen's University are embarking on a £600,000 bid to develop new treatments for a superbug which causes around 10% of all infections, including pneumonia.
Klebsiella pneumonia is one of a growing number of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which collectively cost the NHS around £10m and leads to around 1,000 deaths across the UK each year.
Professor Jose Bengoechea from Queen's School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences will lead the three-year study – from Queen's Centre for Infection and Immunity – which is jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.
Professor Bengoechea explained that Klebsiella caused a range of problems, from urinary tract infections to pneumonia. The latter is particularly devastating with mortality rates between 25 and 60%. "Like all so-called superbugs, Klebsiella is largely resistant to antibiotics," he said.
"With regard to pneumonia, the microbe manipulates the lung's defence responses, leaving it unable to fight the infection. In particular, Klebsiella counteracts the lung's inflammatory response, and this is key in allowing the potentially deadly Klebsiella microbes to attack the lung," he said.
The new study aims to identify the 'Achilles heel' of lung defences – the particular weaknesses in the lung's response to Klebsiella that the bug then manipulates for its own benefit.
"By identifying these vulnerable pathways within the lung, we will be able to develop new therapies to block the bug and stop it in its tracks," Professor Bengoechea added.
"Crucially, these new treatments would target pathways within the lung, helping boost its own defences to the infection, rather than targeting the Klebsiella bug itself.
"Treatments that target the human body in this way are less likely to be met with the resistance that we are increasingly faced with when using conventional antibiotics," he said.
Professor Bengoechea, a world-renowned expert in infectious diseases and immunology, last night told the Belfast Telegraph of his excitement in securing the grant.
"If successful it will be a clear outcome," he said. "It will save the NHS money and reduce deaths."
Klebsiella pneumonia is one of a growing number of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
It causes urinary tract infections or pneumonia and attacks the lungs. If you get it, there is around a 50% fatality rate. After three years of research, QUB's Professor Jose Bengoechea and his team hope to have new therapeutic approaches to treat this kind of infection.