The Dunn School at Oxford University is famed as the birthplace of modern antibiotics, thanks to the pioneering work on penicillin by Ernst Chain and Howard Florey during World War II.

So it is fitting that some 50 years later, the School’s Prof Jeff Errington should originate a new generation of these drugs.

In 2001, Prof Errington spun out Prolysis and today, the company draws ever closer to providing new treatments effective against the so-called superbugs like MRSA.

These infections are resistant to current antibiotics and chief executive Dr Steve Ruston and director of research Dr Lloyd Czaplewski outlined why.

The root cause has been over-prescribing. This has been an issue in UK as much as anywhere else, but in many countries, it has been a far more serious problem.

Mistakenly, clinicians escalated the difficulties by prescribing antibiotics for viral infections, but the drugs will treat only bacterial infections, not viral.

The stringent controls on antibiotics in animals are there to prevent exacerbation from the food chain.

Over a period of time, changes can occur in the DNA to make a bug resistant to antibiotics. This bug can be passed to another patient, leading to a resistant strain. Sensitive bacteria succumb to the antibiotic, leaving a space for the resistant strain to grow.

An example of this is clostridium difficile, C.diff, an infection of the gut. Aggressive use of antibiotics kills most of the gut’s bacteria, opening the door to C.diff.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to resistant bugs. Failing health, weakened immune systems, other drugs that can increase risk of infection, living in closed communities like retirement homes, all these factors can place older people at higher risk. Often, a patient carries an infection into the hospital or clinic.

"Because current antibiotics are increasingly ineffective, clinicians are returning to early stage agents from 30 or 40 years ago," explained Dr Czaplewski.

"These have severe side effects, but we’re seeing them used as first line treatment, not drugs of last resort. We’re even witnessing amputations to save life and that is taking us back to the pre-antibiotic era."

Death from bacterial infections is a serious problem. More than 90,000 die from hospital acquired infections each year in the United States. In 2007, the UK suffered from 6,500 serious MRSA infections and about 1,600 deaths.

Only two new classes of antibacterials have appeared in the last 30 years. So-called ‘new’ antibiotics have otherwise been next generations of existing treatments.

The foundation for Prolysis was Prof Errington’s deep understanding of how bacteria grow by dividing. The key is to inhibit that division.

The early 1990s saw the pharmaceutical industry seeking new drug targets using genome sequencing. They found what appeared to be potent inhibitors, but these did not actually kill the bugs.

The breakthrough for Prolysis came when it discovered compounds that can get into cells. Drugs acting on the outside of the cell may not work, but inside the cell, it can be a totally different picture.

Prolysis has created a new class of compounds that inhibit FtsZ, a protein that bacteria need in order to grow.

A paper on this FtsZ inhibitor appeared in the magazine Science in September, a source of delight and pride throughout the company. Not least to co-author Prof Errington, still the chief scientific officer but now heading a large department at Newcastle University.

The 16 staff at Prolysis’s Oxford headquarters concentrate on the biology. Carefully established links with the universities of Oxford, Newcastle and Sheffield, plus companies in UK and India, provide vital pieces of the jigsaw such as protein crystallography and medicinal chemistry. Effectively, the company has more than 40 staff.

Dr Ruston said: "Of course, outsourcing to India is cheaper, but the main reason we chose this company is for its world class science."

As a drug discovery company, Prolysis is still dependent on funding. Principal shareholder East Hill Management of Boston, Massachusetts has backed it since its early days and its support is vital.

So too is funding from the Wellcome Trust’s Seeding Drug Discovery Initiative. Qualifying for this award involved a rigorous examination of Prolysis’s technology taking almost a year.

Research into antibiotics has diminished in recent years, but clearly there is a vital need to combat such as MRSA and C.diff. Prolysis is one of a number of companies undertaking such research in UK.

Clinical trials are about two years away and the company maintains a constant dialogue with the big pharma companies who will take the new drugs to market.

"We are aiming to create new antibiotics that are not only truly effective, but will remain that way for decades to come" said Dr Ruston.

FACT FILE: Name: Prolysis Established: 2001 Chief executive: Dr Steve Ruston Number of staff: 16 Annual turnover: Confidential Contact: 01865 854700 Website: