ONE News Reporter
It has been called an even bigger threat to the world than terrorism, but now Kiwi scientists are joining the fight against drug-resistant superbugs.
A team from Victoria University is about to embark on a $1.2 million, three year study, making use of New Zealand’s unique soil and plant life, in the race to find new and improved antibiotics.
It’s a worldwide race against time, as current antibiotics are fast losing their ability to stave off the threat of drug-resistance, threatening to take humans back to the medical dark ages when a simple cut finger could potentially kill.
Just last week a patient in a US hospital was infected with a strain of E Coli which proved resistant to the only antibiotic "of last resort" left to treat it.
"The threat is mounting and mounting rapidly," says Victoria University researcher, Associate Professor David Ackerley.
All current antibiotics, taken and developed from bacteria found in soil, have been exhausted, yet they make up only 1 per cent of all the bacteria that exists on earth.
"When you are mowing your lawn you walk over tens of thousands of different bacteria and only 100 or so of those could we actually grow in the lab," says Ackerley.
So the Victoria team are now turning their attention towards accessing the remaining 99 per cent which have, until now, remained untapped and unable to be cultured in sufficient quantities.
Their Health Research Council-backed study will see the team make use of recent advances in DNA sequencing and synthetic biology to hopefully deliver a breakthrough. They say the instructions for how to build a new antibiotic will be somewhere in a bacteria’s molecular DNA and that they just need to find them.
"We cant grow them in the lab but we can look at their DNA, their genetic makeup, and start to look for blueprints that tell those bacteria how to make an antibiotic," says fellow researcher Dr Jeremy Owen.
New Zealand’s unique soils, marine sponges and lichen species will be among the first bacterial sources tapped.
"Our bacterial diversity is this unique pool of potential antibiotic instructions that we can use to make new compounds that hopefully one day might be developed into medicines," says Owen.
Any successful discoveries would then go on to be tested for antibacterial, anti-fungal or anti-cancer properties, after which time any promising molecules can be forwarded for consideration as new drug candidates.
With 700,000 patients worldwide already succumbing each year to drug-resistant superbugs, the hope is that New Zealand can play its part in the race to protect our species.