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By Will Dave on

Superbugs at the Science Museum

Will Stanley describes the launch of the Science Museum’s latest exhibition, Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives.

Ahead of World Antibiotic Awareness Week that begins today (13 November), Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives has opened in the Science Museum to highlight humanity’s response to the unprecedented global threat of antibiotic resistance.

The exhibition examines antibiotic resistance at the microscopic, human and global scale, featuring remarkable scientific research from across the globe and revealing the personal stories of those waging war on superbugs – those disease-causing bacteria that have evolved to be resistant to common antibiotics.

A view of bacteria in the Superbugs exhibition.
A view of bacteria in the Superbugs exhibition.

At the official opening we were joined by 150 guests, from journalists and medical professionals to the Department of Health and members of academia, research councils, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Presenter Angela Rippon spoke passionately about the power of antibiotics to save lives, including her own, and economist Lord O’Neill gave an update on the recommendations of his landmark 2016 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

l-r: Lord O'Neill, Sheldon Paquin (Superbugs curator), Erik Nordkamp (Managing Director of Pfizer UK), Angela Rippon and Ian Blatchford (Director of the Science Museum)
l-r: Lord O’Neill, Sheldon Paquin (Superbugs curator), Erik Nordkamp (Managing Director of Pfizer UK), Angela Rippon and Ian Blatchford (Director of the Science Museum)

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomed guests to the museum. He said: ‘As the home of the greatest medical collection in the world, it is fitting that the Science Museum is opening an exhibition on antibiotic resistance. With the resurgence of diseases once thought banished to history books, this exhibition shines a light on the remarkable scientific research that could stop the spread of the superbugs.’

Antibiotics, which were first turned into drugs thanks to pioneering work at the University of Oxford, are an unusual class of drugs in that the more that they are used, the faster resistance develops, which limits their utility.

Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives features nine bacteria classified by the World Health Organisation as posing the greatest threat to human health: Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterococcus faecalis and Enterobacter cloacae.

‘You will be pleased to know that these bacteria were harmed in the process of making this exhibition,’ said Blatchford.

Enterobacter cloacae, Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylococcus epidermidis & Escherichia coli from the Superbugs exhibition.
Enterobacter cloacae, Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylococcus epidermidis & Escherichia coli from the Superbugs exhibition.

Erik Nordkamp, Managing Director of Pfizer UK, which is the exhibition’s Major Sponsor and continues research in the field that saw the company first mass produce penicillin in the UK in the 1950s, said: ‘We can’t take antibiotics for granted. We’re proud to support this important exhibition, which helps to raise awareness of the scale of this global health challenge.

As the exhibition highlights, no one person or organisation has all the answers, nor is there one solution. Industry, governments, and health providers must work together to create the policies, educational programmes and medical interventions needed to win the fight against the superbugs.’

Angela Rippon, who championed antibiotics in the BBC2 programme Britain’s Greatest Invention, winning the popular vote, said: ‘I owe my life to antibiotics  because as a child I contracted TB.’ She argued that antibiotics was the greatest invention because we would not be able to enjoy the rival innovations ‘if we are dead. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives. They are a modern medical miracle.’

Angela Rippon at the opening of the Superbugs exhibition
Angela Rippon at the opening of the Superbugs exhibition

She added that the exhibition is a ‘wake-up call’ and shows that a quarter of the world’s population are infected with tuberculosis (TB, in a latent form), with drug-resistant TB now an issue for many countries. On display in Superbugs are 14,000 pills, illustrating the two-year treatment needed to combat superbug TB.

14,000 pills, illustrating the treatment of drug-resistant TB

Lord O’Neill summed up the progress made since he reported on the extend of the problem last year, warning that if no action is taken the death toll caused by superbugs could rise from 700,000 to 10 million annually by 2050, and lose ‘a staggering 100 trillion dollars of GDP.’ When it comes to new vaccines and drugs, there is ‘a lot of talk’ but ‘as of yet I don’t really see any real initiatives,’ said Lord O’Neill. ‘We have to ‘stop treating antibiotics like sweets.’

He added we need fast, cheap and reliable diagnostics, a challenge that is being met by the UK’s Longitude prize. He also called for greater public awareness. ‘What better than this’, said Lord O’Neill, motioning to the Superbugs exhibition, which he thinks should now tour the world. The museum is exploring plans to tour the exhibition abroad.

Thirty years since the last new class of antibiotics were approved for human use, scientists are hunting for new antibiotics in unusual places. Visitors can see Komodo dragon blood and watch as University of Illinois researchers dive into Icelandic fjords, both potential sources of new antibiotics.

Brazilian leafcutter ants are also on show in the exhibition, curated by Sheldon Paquin. University of East Anglia scientists believe superbug-killing antibiotics produced by bacteria which live on the ants may be another source of antibiotics.

One of the figures who helped inspire the exhibition was Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, who could not attend the launch but was taken around the exhibition earlier by Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, before he introduced her at a special session on superbugs he curated at a Wired Live event in Tobacco Dock.

Dame Sally emphasised the need to act:  we inappropriately use antibiotics worldwide (in the case of at least 1 in 4 prescriptions for people the UK) and much of the use in agriculture is for growth promotion as a substitute for good hygiene practices: in the United States, antimicrobial use in food animals is estimated to account for ∼80% of the nation’s annual use of antimicrobials.

She added that resistant bugs don’t respect borders; and why challenging science and market failures have led the pipeline of new antibiotics to dry up.

If we lose the battle against superbugs, it will change life as we know it:  antibiotics are needed to not only treat infection, but to preserve modern medicine.  Operations such as transplants, chemotherapy and caesareans rely on antibiotics to prevent infections from emerging in these patients while their immune system is compromised.

Dame Sally concluded: “This exhibition clearly highlights some of the key issues we are trying to address, and crucially, tells stories about real people. People cannot connect with this threat without seeing how it affects them or those around them. I strongly encourage people to visit and find out more about superbugs and how they can help tackle the issue.’

Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives is free and open daily until February 2019, with late opening (18.45 to 22.00) on the last Wednesday of each month for Lates. The exhibition is supported by Pfizer (Major Sponsor) and Shionogi (Associate Sponsor) with additional support from UK Research and Innovation and the University of East Anglia.