Schol­ar­ship for an­tibi­otic re­search

PhD stu­dent awarded Maori Health grant to join sci­en­tists fight­ing the spread of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tant su­per­bugs

The New Zealand Herald - - NEWS - Amy Wig­gins

Su­per­bugs re­sis­tant to an­tibi­otics will be­come a global prob­lem if an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance is not halted, but a Kiwi PhD stu­dent has won a schol­ar­ship which will al­low him to join the ranks of sci­en­tists around the world work­ing to solve the prob­lem.

Uni­ver­sity of Otago PhD stu­dent Howard Maxwell has been awarded one of this year’s Maori Health Re­search PhD Schol­ar­ships, worth al­most $130,000, for a project which aims to find a way to stop the spread of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance be­tween bac­te­ria.

“Re­sis­tance mech­a­nisms have been ob­served for nearly ev­ery an­tibi­otic in our arse­nal,” Maxwell said. “We are rapidly ap­proach­ing a postan­tibi­otic era where no treat­ment will ex­ist against seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant in­fec­tions.

“It’s be­com­ing a huge global prob­lem and it’s kind of a bit scary.”

Maori would be par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble due to both in­creased sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to in­fec­tious or­gan­isms and re­liance on an­tibi­otics, he said.

Maxwell said the Min­istry of Health had ac­knowl­edged that Maori were dis­pro­por­tion­ately bur­dened by in­fec­tious dis­eases and that an­tibi­otics were dis­pensed to a higher pro­por­tion of Maori than non-Maori.

“Maori are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by in­fec­tious dis­eases. If they are re­sis­tant, we are go­ing to be the most af­fected,” he said.

“Pre­vent­ing the spread of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance will re­duce the threat of in­fec­tious dis­ease in Maori and re­sult in bet­ter health out­comes.”

His mo­ti­va­tion came partly from be­ing born and raised in Opotiki, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where his mainly Maori com­mu­nity was over­rep­re­sented in poverty and poor health sta­tis­tics.

“I don’t think many peo­ple from Opotiki get this sort of op­por­tu­nity — I’d like to be one of many to pur­sue post-grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion and academia as a way to ben­e­fit our com­mu­nity.”

Maxwell said an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance could be trans­ferred be­tween bac­te­ria but the or­gan­isms also had a de­fence sys­tem which stopped in­vad­ing ge­netic ma­te­rial.

Un­der­stand­ing more about how that de­fence sys­tem worked might al­low sci­en­tists to pre­vent the trans­fer of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance be­tween bac­te­ria, he said.

Specif­i­cally, he planned to ex­am­ine the com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­cesses within bac­te­ria that con­trolled the spread of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance genes.

He would look at whether the in­hi­bi­tion of quo­rum sens­ing (a mech­a­nism by which bac­te­ria com­mu­ni­cate) al­tered the spread of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance through its re­la­tion­ship to the CRISPR-Cas sys­tems (a way in which bac­te­ria arm them­selves against in­vad­ing ge­netic ma­te­rial).

“CRISPR-Cas is a rapidly de­vel­op­ing field and var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional groups and com­pa­nies are al­ready re­search­ing its po­ten­tial for cur­ing ge­netic disor­ders.”

The Health Re­search Coun­cil man­ager of Maori re­search in­vest­ment, Stacey Pene, said it was en­cour­ag­ing to see young re­searchers driven by the need to ben­e­fit their com­mu­ni­ties and all New Zealan­ders. Maxwell’s grant was one of 17 Maori ca­reer de­vel­op­ment awards an­nounced in the coun­cil’s lat­est fund­ing round. For the full list go to nzher­ald.co.nz

Pic­ture / Shar­ron Ben­nett

Otago Uni­ver­sity PhD stu­dent Howard Maxwell says Maori are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to in­fec­tious dis­eases.

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