A quest to find new antibiotics to fight superbugs

Investigating New Zealand microorganisms, for their ability to kill the bug staphylococcus aureus

Dr Siouxsie Wiles
University of Auckland

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Since the serendipitous discovery of penicillin in the late 1920s (from the fungus Penicillium) by Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have been a bulwark against invading diseases and infection in patients undergoing routine surgery or chemotherapy.

We are now in an era where antibiotics are becoming increasingly ineffective against rapidly evolving superbugs. Some experts predict that, in as soon as ten years’ time, we will have run out of effective antibiotics. Dr Siouxsie Wiles says, ‘key to managing this crisis is the discovery of new antibiotics’.

Of specific concern to the New Zealand population is the bug Staphylococcus aureus (SA), as New Zealand has the highest rates in the developed world. Skin and soft tissue infections related to SA result in 700 children under five admitted to hospital each year, with thousands more treated in primary care.


How will the research be carried out?

Most antibiotics in clinical use are from soil microbes, and it is because of this that Dr Wiles plans to mine a bank of just under a thousand different species of fungi, native to NZ and the Pacific, held by the International Collection of Microorganisms from Plants (ICMP).

They will use a specially cultivated form of bacteria in the lab that has been engineered to glow when alive. This enables them to easily determine whether the bacteria are alive, as, if there is no light, which is a proxy for life, the bacteria are dead.

This facilitates the rapid assessment of numerous different flora and fungi. A previous one-year research grant from Cure Kids enabled this work to get underway, where they have already begun screening the ICMP for antibacterial activity against SA; so far, of the 121 fungal species tested, 19 have been identified as having the ability to kill SA.

This grant allows them to continue to screen the diverse range of fungi, and then supports the further analysis of those that have proven effective in killing SA.


What could likely be achieved by this research?

The importance of the antibiotic ineffectiveness should not be taken lightly. If alternatives to the ever-weakening antibiotics aren’t found, medicine will be set back a number of years.

The sheer number of children admitted to hospital for this one bug is reason enough to consider this work a public health priority and necessity.