Waging war on the enemy within

January 22, 1999

Young scientist Martin Westwell is out to save the world. Alison Goddard reports.

For the first time in the 50 years since antibiotics were first used, we are starting to lose the war against bacteria and infections, and the pharmaceuticals companies are only just waking up to this." So says Martin Westwell, a -year-old chemist at the University of Oxford who will give the first in a series of ten lectures by young scientists at the Royal Institution next week.

If the war is lost, we could face an enormous death toll from septic infections, close to that that stalked Britain until the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s. "Mutant bacteria with a natural resistance to antibiotics appear especially in hospitals, because that is where a great deal of antibiotics are used," Westwell says. "In the 1980s and 1990s there was an explosion of bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics.

"We now have bacteria that is resistant to vancomycin, sometimes called the antibiotic of last resort," Westwell says. There has been one case in Japan and two in the United States where doctors could do nothing but hope that patients would recover without treatment, which they did. But such cases highlight how easily an outbreak of untreatable infection could occur.

In his lecture, Westwell will describe the 50-year battle against infection. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. "He probably had an inkling that it would be useful as a medicine because he tried injecting it into mice," Westwell says. A decade later, when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were looking for natural compounds to treat infection, they read Fleming's article.

The first person the pair treated with penicillin was a policeman. He responded well, but the new drug was difficult to cultivate in large quantities and supplies began to run out. Florey and Chain collected the patient's urine and extracted the penicillin for re-use, but they got less of the drug each time. The policeman eventually died, but the fact that he had recovered initially hinted that penicillin could work.

Florey and Chain decided against patenting the drug because it could be useful in the war. US drug companies made penicillin for the Allies. "The second world war was the first war in which more men died fighting than died of infection," Westwell says.

When the National Health Service was founded in 1948, it had enormous wards for people with infected wounds. "The doctors could not treat these people, they were just put there and looked after until they recovered or they died. The NHS was saved by antibiotics because people could just go and get medicine from their doctor as an out-patient rather than going into hospital."

But now hospitals are the hotbed of antibiotic resistance, and Westwell is on a crusade to help design new antibiotics. "I am interested in how molecules interact and how they cause an effect in humans. We are still learning things, such as how bacteria divide. If we could hamper that division, we would have a new drug."

One possible new approach to the problem of antibiotic resistance lies with bacteria phages - viruses that attack only bacteria. As these phages evolve alongside bacteria, new ways of treating infection emerge with the new treatment-resistant strains of bacteria. "If we are losing the arms race with antibiotics, we can turn to phages that can keep pace with the evolution of bacteria," Westwell says.

But there are problems with phages because they are bacteria-specific, which means that doctors must identify which bacteria are causing the infection before effective treatment can begin.

"Bacteria will always be able to respond," Westwell says. "That is evolution." The war goes on for ever.

"Scientists for the new century": the Royal Institution, January . For tickets, contact the RI, 0171-670 2985.


Martin Westwell's other crusade involves improving access to Oxford and Cambridge for students from non-traditional backgrounds. A former pupil of Wigan Technical College, Westwell went to Churchill College, Cambridge, as an undergraduate in 1989. He stayed at Cambridge for his PhD before becoming a junior fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1996.

"I go to Wigan Tech and talk to able students," he says. "I tell them that I might not be a typical don but there are people like me at Oxbridge.

"I also wanted the ten and 11-year-old students to visit the Science Museum and Natural History Museum in London, but this fell through because of administrative problems."

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