Interview with Joachim Frey and Christoph Dehio

The president of NRP 72 and his predecessor, now director of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) AntiResist discuss the two research initiatives.

The 2020 programme conference of NRP 72 had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. This has robbed you of the opportunity of addressing the researchers as outgoing and incoming president respectively. Let us make up for this lost opportunity now.

Christoph Dehio: I was looking forward to the programme conference in Thun, to meeting the entire NRP 72 community once more and personally thanking them for the excellent collaboration during the past four years. In my experience, the management team and the Steering Committee worked together very professionally, and I found the many meetings with project leaders and researchers at programme conferences, workshops and during numerous site visits very rewarding. Because of the extensive nature of the topic 'antibiotic resistance', NRP 72 covers many different areas; therefore I was all the more impressed at how this diverse group of researchers over the years grew into a family that transcends disciplinary borders. I have sensed an enormous will to work together constructively to find solutions. And for this I would like to compliment them and express my gratitude. I wish NRP 72 a successful conclusion of the research phase and, with Joachim at the helm, a productive synthesis process.

Joachim Frey: For my part, I would first of all like to thank Christoph for his valuable work for NRP 72 and wish him every success in his new role at NCCR AntiResist. In my view, too, the willingness to collaborate is very strong across NRP 72. And this will be even more crucial for the next programme phase: in the coming year and a half, we will be gathering and discussing the findings of the individual projects in the programme synthesis. Based on the scientific consensus, we will then develop recommendations for politics, the private sector and society at large. After my experiences to date, I am looking forward to this new phase very much.

Will there be any changes to the NRP 72 timetable due to the coronavirus pandemic?

Joachim Frey: Some individual projects will certainly take a little longer. Either because the labs are now all closed or because researchers working in the health sector need to devote all their energy to overcoming the crisis. However, we are confident with regard to the overarching processes, such as knowledge consolidation. Although some important meetings have had to be cancelled, we have - just like many others - relocated many smaller meetings to the internet.

While NRP 72 is already focusing on results, NCCR AntiResist - a new SNSF-funded research programme on the resistance problem - will be starting in August. What are the differences between the two?

Christoph Dehio: The NCCR AntiResist has a narrower focus. Using a novel, interdisciplinary approach we want to put the not very fruitful antibiotics research of the past decades on a new footing. Instead of the artificial growth conditions generally used for bacteria, we will try to reproduce the different physiological states in the tissue of the infected patient. With the aid of these new models, we want to find new ways of targeting germs that are resistant to antibiotics. In the long run, this should facilitate the development of new antibiotics as well as alternative antimicrobial treatment methods.

Joachim Frey: NRP 72 does indeed cover more ground and is clearly defined as a programme. We are exploring the paths along which antibiotic resistance spreads and investigating new agents and diagnostic tools. Various projects are also developing principles for increasing the efficiency and safety of antibiotics prescription in both human and veterinary medicine. From the outset, all activities were aimed at achieving the programme objectives. For instance, a search was conducted at federal institutes of technology, universities and universities of applied science for projects that could start immediately using the available infrastructure. The programme's five-year mission is to generate new practice-oriented approaches for solving the problem of rising levels of antibiotic resistance at the end of its five-year duration.

Christoph Dehio: The NCCR and NRP funding schemes are also based on very different concepts: an NRP is launched top-down with the aim of finding specific answers and solutions for urgent problems that society faces. An NCCR, on the other hand, is proposed bottom-up by the researchers and first needs to fend off rival bids in a competitive process. Compared to an NRP, research work in an NCCR is more fundamental because it aims to reposition an entire research field. The NCCR's mandate explicitly includes developing new research structures and promoting the next generation of researchers in the field. For this reason, NCCRs take more time to complete than NRPs, namely up to twelve years

You talk of building new structures. What does this imply in the case of NCCR AntiResist?

Christoph Dehio: The interdisciplinary approach followed by NCCR AntiResist has to dovetail with clinical research into infectious diseases, basic research in infection biology, and bioengineering. To bring these fields together, we are creating professorships and a specific doctoral programme that serves as a bridge. The service facilities at the interfaces play an important role, for example in the area of biobanks and analytics of patient samples or in the development and application of microfluidics for individual analyses. These structural measures will be mainly put in place within the scope of close collaboration between three institutions that are located on the same campus in Basel and therefore serve as a hub for this NCCR. These are the Center for Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Basel as the home institution, Basel University Hospital and ETH Zurich's D-BSSE [Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering] in Basel. Other institutions in Zurich and Lausanne are also participating in the NCCR. Also of great importance is the close collaboration with biotech SMEs and parts of the pharma sector in the Basel region whose work is in antibiotics R&D.

Will NRP 72 also create structures that last beyond its funding period?

Joachim Frey: The NRP is not setting up any research structures of this kind. However, it will certainly have a long-term impact in the sense of creating a scientific community in Switzerland which looks at antibiotic resistance from a one-health perspective. But our main focus is very much on how our results can lead to changes in practice, be it evidence-based changes in the way we keep animals, greater awareness of the transmission of antibiotic resistance through wastewater and water bodies, or new systems for monitoring the resistance situation in Switzerland.

Christoph Dehio: I also think the scientific community that has emerged in the course of NRP 72 is a significant achievement for Swiss research; the NCCR AntiResist will help this community to develop and thrive.

The ultimate aim of both research initiatives is to help mitigate the problem of antibiotic resistance. Will we be able to achieve this goal in the coming years?

Joachim Frey: A crucial part of NRP 72 is the programme synthesis. We use it to show the political authorities, mainly the executive, well-researched approaches to solving a specific problem. One big aim is to show, from a one-health perspective, how the available antibiotics can be used more sustainably in human and veterinary medicine as well as in farming. The relevant associations and organisations of these professional groups are important implementation partners. They have been informed about the projects of NRP 72 and are showing great interest. Laws and ordinances may also have to be amended so that crucial advances can be made. It is important for the public to know more about the resistance problem - this is what StAR, the Swiss strategy for fighting antibiotic resistance, is attempting with an awareness raising campaign. We will only really be able to come to grips with this problem if we have the acceptance and support of large segments of the population.

Christoph Dehio: I'm sure the NCCR AntiResist will also make a major contribution in this respect - even though it will be aiming primarily for more long-term targets. In the end, we want to bring about a paradigm shift in antibiotic research that will sustainably improve the chances of new antibiotics being developed, and at the same time promote alternative treatment methods such as immune therapy, phage therapy and anti-virulence strategies.