Oxford university has received £100m, its largest donation for science, from chemicals group Ineos to set up an antibiotics research institute to counter the growing threat from deadly superbugs.
The gift from the UK’s largest private company will help tackle antimicrobial resistance, which scientists estimate kills at least 750,000 people worldwide a year and could lead to as many as 10m deaths annually by 2050 unless a new generation of drugs is found.
The Ineos Oxford Institute “could be the breakthrough moment the global AMR challenge needs,” said Jim O’Neill, economist and former UK Treasury minister, who has campaigned to raise awareness of the issue since publishing a groundbreaking government report on antibiotics in 2016.
The university has been active in antibiotics research since 1938 when its scientists began to follow up Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. “Oxford played a crucial role in the early development of antibiotics so it is only appropriate that we take the lead in developing a solution to antimicrobial resistance,” said Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor.
She said the institute would focus on designing new drugs to treat bacterial infections in farm animals as well as humans. Between 70 and 80 per cent of antibiotics are used in agriculture “and drug use in animals is contributing significantly to their lessening effectiveness in humans”, she added.
The institute will be based at the university’s chemistry department and its new Life & Mind building, currently under construction opposite the historic Sir William Dunn School of Pathology where the original penicillin work took place 80 years ago.
Under the leadership of majority owner Jim Ratcliffe, one of the UK’s richest individuals, Ineos has become the world’s third-largest chemicals company with annual sales of $61bn. Its products include the raw materials for pharmaceuticals manufacturing.
“We are not a pharmaceutical company and this is not a first step to becoming a pharma company,” said Ineos director Tom Crotty. The new institute is a philanthropic partnership rather than a research collaboration, he added.
David Sweetnam, a surgeon who works part-time with the various sports teams sponsored by Ineos, played a key role in persuading the company to support AMR research.
“All modern surgery and cancer treatments rely on the use of effective antibiotics,” said Mr Sweetnam. “To lose this precious gift will signal a return to a pre-antibiotic era. We now have a very narrow window of opportunity in which to change course and prevent the unthinkable from becoming the inevitable.”
Sir Jim, a vocal Brexiter, sparked a political backlash last month when Ineos announced that its first car, the off-road Grenadier 4x4, would be manufactured in France rather than in Wales, as the company had intended.
Mr Crotty said the decision was based on the compelling industrial logic of being able to acquire a ready-made Mercedes factory close to the border of France and Germany but insisted: “We are a British company and very committed to the UK.”
Ineos wanted to set up its AMR institute in the UK, he added, and Oxford’s strength in biomedical research made it the leading candidate.