Superbugs put future viability of cancer treatment into question, new study

18 Feb 2020

By Ruth Neale, Project Manager, Longitude Prize

Today we have launched a new study, offering a snapshot of the threat that rising antibiotic resistance poses to the treatment of cancer.

The results of the study shine a light on UK’s oncologists worries about the rise of antibiotic resistance and what it means, in their eyes, for the effective care of their patients. It serves a dual purpose: raising awareness of the risks posed by superbugs to healthcare as we know it, and, we hope, encouraging increased support for R&D and procurement for both antibiotics and rapid-diagnostics.

“The effectiveness of cancer treatments threatened by rising antibiotic resistance” reveals that four in 10 (41%) UK oncologists have seen a rise in drug-resistant infections in the past 12 months and that 95% of them are worried about the impact of “superbugs” on their patients. Almost half (46%) of cancer doctors polled say they believe drug-resistant infections could make chemotherapy unviable.

Every day, cancer patients rely on antibiotics for prevention and treatment of infections. This is one of the most common complications of their treatment. Cancer is typically treated with a range of surgical and non-surgical interventions and many of these treatments leave a patient with a weakened immune system and more vulnerable to infection. This is where the risk of multidrug-resistant bacteria rears its head.

Revealingly, the oncologists reported that on average 23% of all their patients contract a bacterial infection during treatment. The research goes on to show that a third of all cancer patients require surgery as part of their treatment, 5% of whom will contract a potentially life-threatening resistant infection.

We owe it to all patients to transform how we respond to – and manage – the threat of antibiotic resistance. Of course, we cannot change the rules of biology to stop superbugs appearing. But, we can slow their development. This will, without a doubt, save peoples’ lives.

We can do this by improving the policies and processes around infection control and prevention. Better stewardship of the antibiotics we have left today (and those that we hope will come tomorrow) is pivotal; we can best achieve this by ensuring the right antibiotic is prescribed at the right time. To do this, we need to accelerate the development of rapid, affordable, easy-to-use, point-of-care diagnostic tests that can distinguish between bacterial and viral infections on the spot. This will enable a medical professional to administer the correct antibiotic to fight a patient’s infection first time around.

“My treatment culminated in a stem cell transplant, where doctors destroyed the cells in my bone marrow in an effort to wipe out every last cancer cell, before transplanting new bone marrow cells. This completely obliterated my immune system for a long time. I was kept in isolation for 4 weeks – even the tv was on the other side of a glass window! During this period, antibiotics were vital in protecting me.”

 – Claire Daniel’s shared her story, showing first-hand how important antibiotics were through her cancer treatment for an aggressive form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Rich or poor, infant or adult, ultimately, antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere in the world. The findings of our new study should act as a wake-up call to us all.

Action and innovation is needed. With that, I’m pleased to announce that, in response to feedback from competing teams internationally, the deadline for the £8m Longitude Prize has been extended for two years until 30 September 2022. The extension ensures that the competing teams have adequate time to complete development of their rapid point-of-care tests to ensure doctors, such as the oncologists in our research, have the tools and resources to use the antibiotics we have wisely.

Today there are 53 registered competitors. The competition remains open to new competitors.  Competitors not only have the chance to win the £8m but they also have a chance to be critical players in the battle against Superbugs.