15 June 2017

A New Zealand-based study with strong international collaboration from Australia and the UK is set to provide a major step forward in understanding how one of the world’s most problematic superbugs survives antibiotic treatment during infection. 

Biochemist Professor Iain Lamont from Otago University has received a project grant worth $1.15 million from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to uncover the genetic mutations that lead to antibiotic resistance in the superbug Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

P. aeruginosa causes hundreds of thousands of infections each year internationally and is a very common cause of infections in people with a wide range of predisposing conditions such as severe burn wounds, cancer, and chronic lung disease due to cystic fibrosis or other forms of bronchiectasis. It is also a major cause of both hospital-acquired and urinary tract infections. 

Professor Lamont says P. aeruginosa intrinsically has low levels of antibiotic resistance, but constant exposure to antibiotics has led to an alarming increase in resistant strains that are difficult or impossible to treat, resulting in thousands of deaths per year.

“During infection, the superbug P. aeruginosa undergoes multiple mutations and evolves very high antibiotic resistance. However, only a subset of the mutations causing resistance have so far been identified,” says Professor Lamont.

In this research, Professor Lamont’s team will aim to provide the first full overview of mutations that lead to high-level resistance. To do this, they will develop highly resistant mutants of P. aeruginosa under controlled laboratory conditions and compare the underlying mutations with those that occur during infection.

“Our results will provide a major step forward in understanding how bacteria resist antibiotics and may lead to improved treatment for P. aeruginosa and other superbugs,” says Professor Lamont.

HRC Acting Chief Executive Dr Tania Pocock says an estimated 700,000 people die worldwide each year from infection by antibiotic-resistant superbugs and the number of deaths is predicted to rise to 10 million people a year unless new treatments or approaches are adopted.

“We take very seriously New Zealand’s engagement in the international research effort to find solutions to antimicrobial resistance. This new study will contribute to international efforts to develop DNA-based diagnostic methods based on resistance mutations that will provide clinicians with point-of-care tools to improve treatment,” says Dr Pocock.

“By fully understanding how bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics, we can also realistically expect to improve strategies for using current antibiotics, prolonging their effectiveness.”

Professor Lamont’s study will join at least three current large HRC-funded projects underway specifically in the area of antimicrobial resistance, along with a number of smaller exploratory studies. In addition, the HRC also funds a wide range studies in immunology, infectious diseases and other areas related to antimicrobial resistance.

Fifty-one projects have received funding worth a combined total of $56.5 million in the HRC’s latest funding round. For the full list of 2017 HRC project grant recipients go to www.hrc.govt.nz/funding-opportunities/recipients and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals,’ ‘Projects’ and ‘2017’.