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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) on securing his brief debate, and on the eloquence and knowledge that he demonstrated in reflecting the huge achievements of Alexander Fleming’s contribution to
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modern medicine. My right hon. Friend and his constituents are of course rightly proud of the fact that Alexander Fleming is one of their own, and my right hon. Friend is right to celebrate this landmark anniversary.

The events of 80 years ago are hugely significant, as my right hon. Friend demonstrated. They marked the start of a revolution in health care that no one at the time, least of all Sir Alexander Fleming, predicted. The story of penicillin’s discovery is a remarkable one: an object lesson for all of us to be ready for the unexpected and to act with courage, determination and vision in seeing through the ideas that we believe in—even in the face of setbacks and disappointments. Indeed, there were some for Fleming.

Fleming’s research, drawn from his observations of the way cultured mould attacked certain gram-positive bacteria, triggered a chain of events that involved an extraordinary combination of people and circumstances, and my right hon. Friend implored science and investment to build on them. Yet, as he knows and the House may be aware, we came dangerously close to losing the secret that Fleming’s Petri dish had inadvertently unlocked. By 1932, Fleming had effectively abandoned his work on penicillin, believing that it would not survive long enough in the human body to kill bacteria.

It took a decade for penicillin to reach the people—perhaps the only people—capable of purifying it and doing the research that demonstrated, in record-breaking time, that it could cure deadly infections. That breakthrough ushered in the antibiotic era. Pneumonia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, diphtheria, scarlet fever and many wound and childbirth infections that killed indiscriminately suddenly became treatable. As my right hon. Friend said, millions of lives have been saved, including millions in the second world war. But, of course, penicillin was just the start. It was followed by the discovery and introduction of a steady stream of different antibiotics over the next 40 years. Those antibiotics transformed the treatment of classical infections such as meningitis and pneumonia, and invasive streptococcal infections, all of which previously carried a high mortality rate. They remain essential for modern medical practice, and, as my right hon. Friend said, it is difficult even now to comprehend the number of lives that have been saved.

The ability to treat infections and to provide antibiotic prophylaxis in surgery has unlocked other key developments in medical science. It has allowed huge advances in complex surgery, cancer therapy and transplantation, because, without those antibiotics, compromised and immuno-suppressed patients would quickly succumb to infections. The other striking fact about antibiotics is their unique status as a therapeutic agent. They are aimed at the bacteria not the patient, massively reducing the side effects that are associated with more aggressive drug treatments.

We have also come to recognise, however, that the effectiveness of the current generation of antibiotics is finite and self-limiting. Alexander Fleming was himself clear that bacteria had the ability to develop resistance—or, as my right hon. Friend said, to “fight back”. The emergence of so-called superbugs such as MRSA in the
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past two decades has showed the potential for damage that over-reliance on antibiotic medicine can cause. The issue demands vigilance and action across the medical community.

It is absolutely imperative that while we rightly celebrate the landmark achievements made 80 years ago, we also look to the future to continue to promote the safe and proportionate use of antibiotics. We must also push the boundaries to ensure that Fleming’s legacy lives on in the new forms of antibiotic treatment. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, the pharmaceutical companies, which have tended to cut back their antibiotic research programmes, have perhaps compounded the problem, creating some of the cycles that we now see. They need, with the Government, to build on the legacy now.

The new anti-infectives, which work well against MRSA, have come on stream in the past three years and research on other new anti-infective agents continues. Equally important is the emergence of novel approaches. That is the challenge that the international, big health research players in Government and industry face. We are playing our part as a Government. The Medical Research Council supports a substantial body of infection research and is currently spending £72 million a year on it. The United Kingdom clinical research collaboration has invested £16.5 million in its translational infection research initiative. That will help to boost research capacity and infrastructure and establish new career development and training programmes for scientists and researchers.

The Technology Strategy Board’s new detection and identification of infectious agents platform will make £55 million available to encourage researchers to work together to produce faster diagnostic tests to identify infections in humans and animals. Like my right hon. Friend, I am utterly convinced that the potential for development of more traditional antibiotics has not been exhausted. It is absolutely vital to the future of medicine, health and humanity that we should continue to sow the seeds for future discoveries.

Vaccines, of course, play a huge part in our strategy for combating infections—prevention is better than cure—but we are a long way from removing the need for antibiotics. The basic researches and determinations of Alexander Fleming have profoundly shaped the development of medical science and treatment across all health care systems. It is right that we should be celebrating his life and contribution today. As my right hon. Friend implored, we should also recognise that just a fraction of the potential that Fleming identified has been exploited to date. There are new ideas and ways of operating and of treatment. The legacy is not only about the past standing us in good stead, but about the past still shaping our future. It gives me great pleasure to join my right hon. Friend in recognising the achievements of this great scientist and in making sure that we, as a Government, play our part in funding the great scientists who continue to build on that legacy.

Question put and agreed to.

10.54 pm

House adjourned.

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