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How can diagnostics deliver a more effective use of antibiotics in animals?

Press release issued: 10 July 2017

Are there better ways to diagnose animals in need of antibiotics on livestock farms? How will farmers and veterinarians use novel diagnostics in the fight against animal disease? These are some questions a consortium of seven academics – including two veterinarians from the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences - will address thanks to a £1.75 million grant to understand how better diagnostics can encourage responsible antibiotic use in animals.

The award, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) working in partnership with the Department of Health and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is part of the cross-council 'Tackling antimicrobial resistance: behaviour within and beyond the healthcare setting' call, part of the antimicrobial resistance cross-council initiative supported by the seven research councils in partnership with other UK funders including the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The research team will be led by social scientists at the University of Exeter and includes colleagues at the Innogen Institute of the University of Edinburgh, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and leading farm animal veterinarians across the UK.

The project adds to recent successes at the University of Bristol, where researchers have received more than £6 million of the £46 million distributed as part of Phase 1 of the recent cross-council calls focussed on antimicrobial resistance.

Scientific, public and political concern regarding antimicrobial resistance is increasing, and farmers and veterinarians are doing their best to use medicines as responsibly as possible. Better, smarter, more rapid and more accessible diagnoses - driving shifts in behaviour associated with diagnostic decision making - represent a critical step to delivering more effective uses of antibiotics in animal health. But improvements in diagnostic development and their relationship to prescription and treatment requires social, governance and technical innovations.

Professor Henry Buller, project lead from the University of Exeter's School of Geography, said: "This is an exciting opportunity to provide a current assessment of diagnostic and treatment decision practices in the livestock sectors of the UK. Novel and innovative diagnostic tools are currently in development, and our research will generate better understanding of their development as well as the marketing and regulation of these new technologies."

Dr Kristen Reyher, Senior Lecturer in Farm Animal Science, who is the lead on the project at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences, added: "Our research team – the AMR Force – has a track record of working closely with farmers, veterinarians, retailers and government bodies to encourage responsible use of antibiotics. We are excited to have this amazing opportunity to collaboratively generate, evaluate and analyse behaviours and strategies around animal disease diagnosis and to show how innovation in the development of diagnostic tools along with diagnostic regulation and governance can lead to more sensible use of antibiotics across farming systems.

"Working with our partners, we will identify pathways and possibilities for improved diagnostic practice and will trial new diagnostic tools on a series of farms. We are very excited to take our ideas beyond the UK as well, and will conduct pilot and capacity-building research in Tanzania and also partner with a project working in Bangladesh that is co-funded by ESRC and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science."

Professor Buller added: "Employment of new diagnostics doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Our team will evaluate the implications these innovations will have for the organisation, cost-effectiveness and efficiency of veterinary practice, as well as for veterinary training. We will identify the changes in behaviour, practice and knowledge necessary to accompany the more widespread adoption of practices that are deemed effective and will assess the regulatory and governance support necessary to encourage use of beneficial practices."

The interdisciplinary team will work alongside diagnostic tool developers and regulators, veterinary practices and professional bodies, farmers and treatment decision makers, veterinary laboratories, the food industry and government regulatory authorities to develop durable and innovative strategies for facilitating and advancing smarter approaches to the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

The work will cover the major livestock species, and will involve seeking opinions from veterinary surgeons across the country, through collaboration with the BVA.

David Barrett, Professor of Bovine Medicine, Production and Reproduction at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences and a key member of the project team, said: "This is a fantastic opportunity to assess the adaptability and responsiveness of the different animal production sectors - poultry, pigs and cattle - along with a variety of veterinary structures to the trialled innovations in diagnosis and diagnostics, and will determine the likely benefits of these innovations for prescription practice, for animal health and for sustainable livestock production."

Further information

The four-year project - 'Diagnostic innovation and livestock (DIAL): towards more effective and sustainable applications of antibiotics in livestock farming' - will commence later this year.

About the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

About antimicrobial resistance (AMR) research
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) research at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences is promoted and facilitated by the AMR Force, initiated and led by Dr Kristen Reyher. We work both in the South West, nationally and internationally, and are interested in decreasing antibiotic use while improving animal health through a plurality of approaches addressing differing styles and attitudes. Our group has been funded by and currently stewards over £3.6 million of funding from Research Councils UK (BBSRC, ESRC, EPSRC, MRC, NERC) along with various industry (AHDB Dairy, MSD Animal Health, Zoetis UK, WD Farmers, Coombe Farm), public (Defra, University of Bristol) and charity funders (Soil Association, The Langford Trust) as well as international bodies (EU H2020, Formas – Sweden).

We are uniquely placed to combine our veterinary focus with close collaborations, including those with social science interests, animal welfare research and policy-making concerning animals, animal welfare and veterinary practice. We perform medicines audits and clinical governance on antibiotics in all Langford Vets clinics and advise for a number of other practices nationally. We are heavily involved in influencing medicines use UK-wide and in national control programmes on farms. We also work closely and have collaborations with the BristolBridge AMR project and with a number of basic and social science researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter.

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