Disarming instead of destroying: Identifying new treatments for antibiotic resistant infections

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1. SUMMARY

Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, but finding new treatments to overcome this problem have stalled. There are now bacterial strains resistant to all available antibiotic medicines in use, and the world is now approaching a return to the pre-antibiotic era, where a simple infection could cause death. New strategies to fight bacteria are needed now.


My research focuses on how to disarm bacteria, rendering them harmless to those they infect. This has many benefits over the usual approach, which is to kill. I do this by disrupting the structural integrity and function of key proteins involved in infection. Using this strategy bacteria may be blindsided, unable to generate their usual defense mechanisms (such as making enzymes to break down antibiotics ), this will slow down the development of antibiotic resistance. Disarming bacteria will also give time for the host’ own immune system to attack the bacteria and clear the infection.

2. BENEFIT

Antibiotic resistance is predicted to cause millions of deaths at the cost of trillions of dollars globally, by the year 2050. The misuse of antibiotics in the agriculture industry and the indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics for unrelated illnesses has contributed to the development of bacterial resistance. No new antibiotic has been approved for clinical use in over 30 years, as this is not seen as a lucrative market by pharmaceutical companies.


Several strains of bacteria are now resistant to all current antibiotics. These bacterial strains are predominantly found in low economic areas such as South East Asia and Africa. However, global issues such as climate change, the ease of travel, and in particular, Queensland’s proximity to the tropics, makes it only a matter of time before this issue becomes our problem. For example, the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei is endemic to northern Australia, present in the soil. The increasing frequency of floodwaters due to cyclones allows for B. pseudomallei to be released from the soil and enter a host through cuts in the skin. B. pseudomallei is resistant to many antibiotics and is extremely difficult to treat, and often leads to death.


Therefore it is important to dedicate research to combat antibiotic resistance. I have a particular interest in B. pseudomallei , but I also work on the more common E. coli model bacterium. I have collaborators both in Queensland and nationally, working towards discovering new drug leads to combat bacterial infection. I have presented this work internationally and looking to set up new collaborations, so that Queensland can be known as a strong research hub. I work closely with Nature Bank, a facility at Griffith University which houses a library of over 10,000 natural products extracts from Eastern Australia and New Guinea, and use it as a source for drug discovery.


The knowledge generated from my work will result in a significant step towards combating bacterial virulence. By understanding how bacteria make these toxic proteins, we can learn to control their production and effectively disarm the bacteria. The discovery of a drug hit which can lead to a new antibacterial drug will have an immeasurable value to not only Queensland but also Australia and beyond.

3. ENGAGEMENT

I enjoy sharing my research with school students, STEM professionals and the general public. My caring responsibilities with children at home restricts my engagement activities to suit my home/work schedule, however I am always looking for opportunities where I can contribute and share my research stories. During my PhD (2006 – 2009) and as an early career researcher (2010 – now) I have mentored numerous undergraduate and Honours students – training them in conducting lab work and communicating their research findings. In my current role, as an Early Career Research Leader at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, I have undertaken numerous engagement activities with a wide reach. I co-organised the Griffith University Brisbane Science Festival booth (2018), and was part of the committee for raising awareness for World Malaria Day 2019 where my role was to organise and oversee activities for the day, such as a photobooth, a quiz for attendees and a cupcake decorating table.


Recently, I volunteered for the 2019 Cutting Edge STEM conference. In this role I organised and led a tour of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery for a group of ten STEM educators from the SE Queensland district, showing them the breadth of drug discovery research happening at the institute and at its core facilities: Nature Bank and Compounds Australia. I participated as a scientist partner in the 2020 National Science Youth Forum “Speed Meet” where I discussed my career in STEM and answered career questions with a group of ~100 senior school students. I am passionate about promoting women in STEM and what can be done to help address the visibility and retention of women in both the academic and industry STEM field. I co-authored a short Focus article in the Australian Journal of Chemistry in “How to make the invisible women of STEM visible” (Halili, MA and Martin, JL (2019)) - https://doi.org/10.1071/CH19286 – which was a reflection on my own career path and that of my mentor, and the challenges we encountered as women in STEM. Suggestions to address the inequality were included in the article, such as raising awareness of the implicit bias still seen in academia, and for STEM organizations to commit to the Athena SWAN charter to support diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 


By entering the 2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize, this is my opportunity to be more visible and to reach a much wider audience than I have previously. I hope to raise awareness of the seriousness of antibiotic resistance and what I as a woman in STEM am doing to address it. This not only affect Queensland, but is a global concern.

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