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The University of Oxford is working with partners in the US, including Harvard Medical School, to tackle antibiotic resistance.

More than 1.2 million people die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. But this number could soon rise dramatically: as resistance spreads, an increasing number of infections are becoming harder – and sometimes impossible – to treat as antibiotics become less effective.

Antibiotic resistance is already a major challenge and one that is growing fast. Without effective action, we could soon be in a “post-antibiotic era”, where even minor cuts and common infections could be fatal, and standard medical procedures become highly risky,’ said Harrison Steel, Associate Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford.

To address this threat, in September 2023 President Biden announced a new Defeating Antibiotic Resistance through Transformative Solutions (DARTS) project. Backed by up to $104 million of funding, it is the largest investment made to date by the USA’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

The aim of DARTS is to combine the power of artificial intelligence (AI), high-throughput testing and robotics to develop rapid platforms to test for antibiotic resistance. Led by Harvard Medical School, DARTS brings together more than twenty partners in the United States. As the only non-US partner in the project, Professor Steel’s research group was invited to participate due to its world-leading expertise in developing robotic applications to address biological challenges.

Harrison Steel, Associate Professor at the University of Oxford said,

‘Our aim is to develop a step-change technology to diagnose antibiotic resistance exponentially faster than current gold-standard methods’ he said. ‘When a patient arrives at a hospital with a bloodstream infection, every minute matters and so choosing the correct antibiotic quickly is crucial to success. However, methods currently used to identify bacteria and their antibiotic susceptibility have remained largely similar for the past 50 years and are simply not up to the challenge.’

The Steel Lab’s participation in DARTS reflects their international reputation for working at the interface between robotic technologies and synthetic biology to design biologically-inspired solutions to scientific, environmental, and industrial challenges.

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