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Drug Resistance Research: Running to Stand Still Yet Taking Big Steps Forward


Twenty-seven researchers coming from eight different disciplines, all working on the same problem, yet most didn´t know each other or each other´s field until last week. We didn´t read each other’s papers nor did we bump in to each other at conferences. This is the strange reality of drug resistance research.

Having 27 representatives from eight different fields together proved to be a very rewarding and productive experience

Biologically speaking, the evolution of drug resistance is a common phenomenon based on very basic evolutionary principles, that is, the survival of the fittest: if you are the one that can survive the substance that kills most of your competitors, you are the one going to make babies and your babies are more likely to be able to survive this substance as well. 

This phenomenon is observed in nearly every situation where we as human beings have tried to control unwanted organisms or cells: we have “drug” resistant bacteria, viruses, fungi, worms, parasites, cancer cells, insects and weeds. As these problems popped up their respective fields, microbiologists started to tackle antibiotic resistance, malariologists try to tackle antimalarial resistance, crop researchers try to tackle herbicide resistance, etcetera. This to me seemed like a very inefficient way of taking on a problem. However, even trying to go through the literature of some of these other fields proved to be a daunting task, as the usual keywords in my field of malaria didn't produce the relevant search results for herbicide resistance, cancer resistance or fungicide resistance, to name a few, simply because we all speak our own language.

The first step in changing this situation is to open the conversation and be in one room together. In collaboration with Paul Neve, working on herbicide resistance a Rothamsted Research in the UK and the support from the BBSRC, we organized the "Running to Stand Still" workshop with the aim of opening such an interdisciplinary conversation. Having 27 representatives from eight different fields together proved to be a very rewarding and productive experience.

By taking off the blinders we are much more inclined to take big steps forward as a community

The common problem that turned out to be outstanding in every single discipline is how to employ the drugs we have in the most effective manner to slow the evolution of resistance. This is a surprisingly general question and one that can be much more efficiently solved by teaming up and looking for the best model systems to address this question. Clearly there are specifics to each specific system, but by taking off the blinders we are much more inclined to take big steps forward as a community.

I left the meeting with great enthusiasm and full of ideas. The resistance problem is not solved yet, nor is it likely to be for as long as we rely on chemicals to control unwanted organisms. Yet, more heads are thinking about the problem jointly and experiments are planned to understand to evolutionary response to different treatment regimes better. We are hoping to transform this setup in a consortium where ideas will be more easily exchanged and perhaps even students can make interdisciplinary lab visits. In the near future we will jointly publish a review paper that will aid a larger community in thinking interdisciplinary about the resistance problem. For me personally, there is still a lot more to learn from the other fields, at least now I have a better idea of which search terms I need to enter in Pubmed.

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"Running to stand still": Conclusions of the Workshop on Drug and Pesticide Resistance