People benefit from medicines, such as antibiotics, against bacterial infections. It is important that antimicrobial agents remain efficacious and effective due to the risk of dying from an infectious disease like pneumonia. We therefore fund research in this area and ensure the utilisation of the research results.

Antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents

A treatment with antimicrobial agents in the case of an infection with pathogenic viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi is necessary to limit the damage caused or to save a life. The first antibiotic was discovered in 1928 when Alexander Fleming observed that a fungus of the Penicillium genus excreted a substance that kills bacteria. Since then, more substances with an antimicrobial effect have been discovered, developed and registered. The origins of some of these substances can be found in nature.

Positive and negative effects of antimicrobial agents

People, animals, and crops suffer from infections caused by microorganisms and benefit from treatments with antimicrobial substances. Examples are treatments with antibiotics in the case of bacterial infections or antifungal agents in the case of fungal infections. Microorganisms is the umbrella term for viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. The aim of antimicrobial medicines is to kill the microorganisms or inhibit their growth. It is therefore vital that such substances continue to work and remain efficacious and effective and that no undesirable side effects arise, such as antimicrobial resistance.

Why is research important?

Due to natural adaptive processes, pathogenic microorganisms can change. That means that the functioning or the efficacy of the deployed substances changes too. This can lead to severe illness or even death from infectious disease such as pneumonia or a urinary tract infection. Continuous efforts must therefore be made to:

  • develop new drugs;
  • improve the optimal functioning and efficacy of existing drugs;
  • monitor and prevent undesirable side effects during the use of these drugs.

As a consequence, we not only fund projects in these areas, but also facilitate the application of the knowledge developed. In addition, we regularly draw up a knowledge agenda, work with other parties active in this field and, within ZonMw, work together on this subject with different research programmes.

New antibiotics and alternatives

Research into new targets for new antimicrobial agents is vitally important. Developing antimicrobial agents is, however, a very expensive and time-consuming process. It often requires millions of euros to be able to bring a new drug to the market. National governments are therefore funding various initiatives such as the NACTAR programme of the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and, at an international level, GARDP.

Discover which research we fund

Research into the development of alternative treatments for infections is also important. Read about project x and project y funded from the ZonMw programmes Good use of Medicines and Fundamental Research into Antimicrobial Resistance and the programmes from NWO. At a global level, we also contribute to the expansion of Traditional & Complementary Medicine (acronym T&CM) within the veterinary and human healthcare sectors. T&CM can contribute to reducing the incorrect use of antibiotics by offering deferred prescription strategies or alternative prevention and treatment.

Antimicrobial resistance

One of the most important undesired side effects of using antimicrobial agents is that microorganisms adapt, or become partly or entirely unresponsive, to the drugs used. This phenomenon is called antimicrobial resistance (acronym AMR). In brief, the more antimicrobial drugs are used, the more resistance develops. At present, the biggest problem is resistance development in bacteria. That is referred to as antibiotic resistance (acronym ABR).

Knowledge contributes to reducing resistance

The consequence of resistance is that pathogenic microorganisms can spread without restraint or transfer their resistance genes to other microorganisms. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to adequately treat what is sometimes a simple infection. This poses a big risk for people, animals and the environment. In contrast to the Netherlands, in some countries, it is very easy for people to obtain antibiotics without the need for a doctor's prescription. This facilitates the careless use of antibiotics and promotes resistance development in bacteria.

Stimulating research into resistance genes

ZonMw's aim is to contribute to limiting the development of resistance and the spread of resistant microorganisms or resistance genes. To achieve this, we fund research based on monitoring and diagnostics, which increases knowledge about the spread of antimicrobial resistance and resistance genes. We also finance research that develops an action perspective to counteract resistance or that contributes to the dissemination of knowledge about antimicrobial resistance and the prevention of this.

Stewardship and antibiotic teams

Thanks to an AMR project from Amsterdam UMC (location AMC), antibiotic stewardship programmes and antibiotic teams (A-teams) have been deployed in hospitals throughout the Netherlands. Their aim is to promote the well-considered development of policies concerning antibiotic use in hospitals. This project has a major societal impact.

Antibiotics and animals

Between 2009 and 2020, the use of antibiotics in livestock farming in the Netherlands fell by almost 70%. We have also funded several projects that encourage the appropriate and reduced use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine. Read more about ASAP project (in Dutch).

Worldwide partnership: JPIAMR

To tackle these international challenges, we participate in the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance (JPIAMR) together with 29 other countries. With a One Health approach, this international collaboration of research funding bodies and government ministries is taking the necessary steps to counteract the increasing resistance worldwide. We are also involved in the development of a new international partnership that will focus on aspects concerning One Health antimicrobial resistance.

How did the corona pandemic impact data?

The corona pandemic has revealed how important it is to quickly have sufficient data available for matters such as vaccine development, insights into the spread of the coronavirus and the measures required to counteract it. Proper data are also crucial for an effective approach to other infections. This article [link] makes clear that it is no coincidence that ZonMw has therefore decided to devote extra attention to FAIR data, particularly in the area of antibiotic resistance.


View more articles