RON GODFREY talks to the North Yorkshire scientist on the verge of a breakthrough to beat the MRSA superbug.

SUDDENLY, the massive implications of a Helperby scientist's potential cure for the MRSA superbug has dawned on the financial world - and this year the crucial human trials can begin.

Investors were at first slow to twig to the fact that Professor Sir Anthony Milnes Coates was on the verge of creating the most effective weapon yet against the antibiotic resistant bacteria which thrives where people have weakened immune systems, such as patients in hospitals and healthcare facilities.

After all, the tall bespectacled boffin with aristocratic bearing, had successfully completed laboratory tests on a promising compound to combat Methicillan Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, which kills 5,000 people on the planet each year.

But a lot more was needed if he was to conduct human trials.

In spite of Sir Anthony's credentials as one of the world's foremost experts on tuberculosis and MRSA, initially he succeeded in raising only £400,000 in shares as opposed to the £3.75 million that he needed on top of £1.25 million he had already raised.

But then the floodgates opened.

Prominent money manager Crispin Odey, head of the Odey Asset Management operation helped to bring the fund to more than £4 million, contributing more than £1 million himself to Helberby Therapeutics which has its registered office in Selby and laboratories in London.

Mr Odey clearly realised that, apart from the potential of saving lives, the prospect of financial rewards of Sir Anthony's researches were mind-boggling.

Pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline has so far been the world leader in creating anti-MRSA drugs such as Nupirocin, marketed as Bactroban, but, says Sir Anthony, there is increasing resistance to it by the MRSA bugs.

His potent new compounds could, however, have the effect of treating not just the killer germ, but also be a treatment for impetigo, the skin disease, and for skin and soft tissue infections.

"If this can be attained with one drug, it would be worth $250 million per year in the US alone and perhaps $500 million a year worldwide, " he said.

But the fund-raising is not over. He needs at least another £2.5 million to fund the project through to 2008.

"We already have between £500,000 and £750,000 in pledges, generally from private investors rather than venture capital, so we are reasonably confident."

MRSA is commonly found on the skin and/or in the noses of healthy people - usually harmless unless getting into the body through breaks in the skin such as cuts or surgical incisions and causing infection.

He is hopeful of starting the first of three stages of human trials next month by selecting 50 volunteer patients from London, where carriers of dormant MRSA are more likely, and assessing levels of the bacterium in their noses.

"The idea is to establish clinical endpoints - creating the language of quantity and comparison, " he said.

"The drug won't be used in the first study, but then we will use a placebo, the fluid consisting of a lot of alcohol, which acts as a vehicle for the drug."

It was essential that the fluid did not have a direct effect on the germs so that the cause and effect of the drugs when used became clear.

Safety trials will follow when the drug will be tested on the skin of volunteers and, by December or early 2008, he hopes that the clinical trials will begin on people actually carrying the MRSA infection.

"We will be looking to see if our drug reduces or even clears MRSA bacteria from the patients' noses."

Hospitals on alert

H HOSPITALS throughout Britain - including York Hospital - have been on red alert when it comes to MRSA.

The battle took on a new dimension in 2004, when in that year the MRSA death toll rose by more than one-fifth, with 1,168,000 being assessed as an underlying cause.

Tough Government targets introduced to try to drive down rates of the infection across the country, seem to be having a good affect at York Hospital.

In 2005, there were 20 cases, a drop of 28 and 31 in previous years. Last October, the hospital reported that it was on track to meet its target of just 16 cases. This year it is expected to cut cases to 12.

It has been partly achieved by constant awareness of how MRSA can spread between patients, by direct or indirect physical contact.

For example, hospital staff attending to an infected patient may become contaminated with MRSA and spread the bacteria to other patients.