Scholarship for antibiotic research
PhD student awarded Maori Health grant to join scientists fighting the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs
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
Otago University PhD student Howard Maxwell says Maori are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases.