The U3A February meeting was held at Number 8 and the speaker was Dr Graham Cope whose interesting and thought provoking talk was entitled ‘Antibiotic Resistance – A Ticking Timebomb’.

Dr Cope is a medical scientist, a toxicologist by speciality with expertise in smoking and the causes of smoking related diseases. In 1990 he joined a team of scientists and engineers at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham.

To gather information he began by asking smokers about their smoking habit, and soon realised that his data was widely inaccurate - basically because smokers chose not to tell the truth about their smoking so one project he worked was to develop a test to measure smoking habit. He invented a test called SmokeScreen . This is a tube with some chemicals in which detects nicotine and the breakdown products in urine or saliva and it turns pink, the darker the colour the more the patient has been smoking over the previous three days.

He realised after a little while that the chemical test he was using had not been developed for smoking at all, but 20 years earlier it had been developed in London to monitor patients with tuberculosis to see if they were taking their tablets correctly. In this case if they have taken the drugs the urine sample turns dark blue. And this is where antibiotic resistance comes in. TB was a massive killer until the discovery of antibiotics. Antibiotic treatment is relatively cheap and effective, but it needs a cocktail of drugs including an antibiotic called isoniazid and these that have to be taken every day for 6-9 months. As these drugs have side-effects, many people stop taking them- the problem then is that the bacteria linger around in the lungs, sometimes for years, then re-emerge and then they have evolved to be resistant to the drugs they have been exposed to before – so are antibiotic resistant.

Alexander Fleming made his discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in London in 1928 by accident, wrote up his findings and nothing more was done. Florey and Chain working in Oxford in 1940 and spurred on by the war to find ways of improving wound healing, came across Fleming’s paper, worked it up and by 1941 had penicillin in production. All three got the Nobel Prize in 1945. And the reason we know Fleming and not the others was by 1945 he was approaching retirement and wanted the limelight, the other two were still young and not interested in the publicity.

Anyway now we have a whole range of antibiotics. But a few genetic mutations can render the bacteria resistant to the antibiotic. So when a course of antibiotics is taken, all the susceptible ones die off and the few resistant ones live on. The body can normally kill a few bacteria but if there are more resistant cells they may overcome this natural defence and grow into a new colony.

The main problem is over prescribing, not so much in the UK but in countries with poor regulations, such as India where antibiotics can be bought at the corner shop without a prescription. Another factor is feeding antibiotics to animals when resistant strains with poor hygiene and under-cooking get into the food chain. Another problem in this country was poor hospital infection control. Carriers of these bacteria were coming into hospitals, spreading it around and vulnerable patients were contracting the germs such as MRSA.

What can we do?

• Use when prescribed

• Take full course, even when feeling better

• Don’t use left over antibiotics

• Don’t share them

The speaker at our 20th March meeting will be Rick Minter, author and researcher with an illustrated talk on local big cats. This will be held at Number 8 at 2 p.m. New members will be very welcome.