Pioneering ideas…

Launched to celebrate the Department’s 50th anniversary, the Physics at 50 Fund is helping scientists like Professor Krauss create novel ways to speed up diagnosis of bacterial infections

It is predicted that 10 million people will die from drug-resistant bacteria worldwide by 2050, more people than currently die from cancer.

Among the approximately 40 different antibiotics on the market, the most commonly prescribed are amoxicillin and penicillin – known as the ‘broad band’ antibiotics for their effective use on many kinds of different bacteria. It is overuse of these cheaply produced drugs that has led to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) becoming one of the greatest threats facing humanity today. Overuse of these antibiotics, in turn, arises from a failure to diagnose a specific bacterial infection. The ‘broad-bandedness’ of penicillin is both a blessing and a curse.

Thomas Krauss, Professor of Photonics at the University of York, works in collaboration with a cross-disciplinary team of York academics to tackle AMR. Krauss knows as well as anyone that the stakes are high when dealing with antibiotics. He was inspired to join the research effort after his son fell seriously ill. “When my son was two years old he contracted pneumonia,” he says. “The antibiotics he was given failed to work and we feared for his life. He was deteriorating rapidly. When they took blood samples, they took 48 hours to come back from the laboratory.”

“So I thought, what can I do? How can I use my research skills to make a beneficial impact on society? I wanted to help find a diagnosis in ten minutes, not 48 hours.” Part of Krauss’s project involves developing tiny biosensors which are designed to improve diagnosis of bacterial infections. “We are working on novel photonic technologies that control light on a very small scale so they can interact with bacteria and test how they respond to antibiotics.”

It is hoped that clinicians will use this technology to identify precisely which type of narrow band antibiotic should be used for individual cases – thus reducing the future likelihood of resistance.

Krauss is cautiously optimistic: “I’m positive by nature. There’s a Greenpeace slogan: the optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought. I believe in that. It won’t happen automatically, but we will find solutions, especially with the help and generous support of our donors – thank you.”