Native fungi could hold the answer to antibiotic resistance
8th May 2017
New Zealand’s native fungi could hold the answer to antibiotic resistance crisis
Amid growing concern over the need to combat antibiotic resistance – considered one of the greatest public health threats of the modern age – a campaign has been launched to determine if a collection of fungi, unique to New Zealand and the Pacific, could hold the key to discovering new antibiotics.
Cure Kids, the nation’s leading charitable funder of child health research, kicks off its ‘Fight Against Superbugs’ crowdfunding campaign today.
“Countries all around the world have been asked to act now. New Zealand may be a small nation, but our native fungi and our unique biodiversity could provide an answer to this global problem. If we don’t act now and discover new medicines, it is predicted that within a generation, antibiotic resistance will overtake cancer as the leading cause of premature death worldwide,” says Cure Kids Research Director Tim Edmonds.
Each year, an estimated 700,000 people around the world die from drug-resistant infections, and this is predicted to rise to 10 million people a year by 2050.
The ‘Fight Against Superbugs’ campaign aims to raise $250,000 to support pioneering research by scientists at the University of Auckland who will study fungi from a collection by Landcare Research. Fungi are a proven source of antibiotics, such as penicillin, and most antibiotics in clinical use are from soil microbes.
Microbiologist, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University, and her team aim to mine 1000 prioritised fungi from the collection of 10,000 over the next 12 months to identify pathogen-fighting properties.
The results of the work to date are promising – Dr Wiles’ team have piloted the approach, screening 300 fungi, using a cultivated form of bacteria that’s been engineered to glow when alive. When the bacteria stop glowing, it signals potential antimicrobial qualities in the fungi which then undergo more tests.
“We’re really hopeful that we will make rapid progress in our search for new antibiotics. Children are at increased risk and more vulnerable to infectious diseases. We are particularly hopeful we will identify fungi that are able to kill the bacteria responsible for many of the serious diseases rife in New Zealand such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA),” says Dr Wiles.
New Zealand has some of the highest rates of infectious diseases in the developed world. This is coupled with high rates of antibiotic consumption. Infectious diseases, such as MRSA, can cause skin, respiratory and bloodstream infections. Most at risk of this potential killer are children under five and people over 65.
“We are running out of time, we need to find a solution,” says Dr Wiles. “While current antibiotics have proved highly effective in the defence against infectious diseases, common bacteria regularly develop new strains that resist these antibiotics.”
Dr Wiles recently published her book ‘Antibiotic resistance – the end of modern medicine?’, which explores the threat to humans, agriculture and animals from superbugs and antibiotic resistance. In the book, Wiles says antimicrobial resistance threatens to undo many of the medical achievements of the last century.
Since Cure Kids began supporting the project’s pilot programme 18 months ago, the organisation has received generous donations from individuals and businesses to help with the research, but more support is needed to move it into this next phase.
“We’re so grateful for the support we’ve had to date. Now we’re inviting the wider community to help us raise the $250,000 needed to progress this project so a further 1000 fungi can be screened and analysed over the next 12 months,” says Edmonds.
Every pledge counts and those who give certain amounts will receive special rewards. A $30 donation sees the donor receive the chance to ‘nick-name’ one of the fungi being tested; a $50 donation receives a limited-edition print from New Zealand artist Otis Frizzell; a $100 donation will give the donor a glowing bacteria art kit. Pledges over $1000 will give the donor an opportunity to take part in a one-hour bioluminescent session (painting with glowing bacteria) with Dr Siouxsie Wiles.
“We know that antibiotic resistance is an issue many New Zealanders are concerned about. Particularly for those children at greatest risk of infections. However, it can also seem like too big a problem to know how to help. This campaign gives everyone an opportunity to contribute and play a vital part in enabling our leading experts to search for an answer to this crisis.”
ABOUT CURE KIDS Cure Kids is New Zealand’s largest funder of child health research outside of the government and fund research into developing better treatments and cures for a wide range of childhood diseases and health conditions including inherited heart conditions, childhood cancers, cystic fibrosis, asthma, epilepsy, burns and child and adolescent mental health. The Cure Kids vision is a healthy childhood for everyone, focusing on raising funds to enable high impact health research to find the cures our kids need. Cure Kids New Zealand was formed 45 years ago and has invested more than NZ $38 million in vital medical research which has saved, extend and improved the lives of thousands of children in New Zealand and around the world. For more information visit www.curekids.org.nz.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION – ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE IN NEW ZEALAND:
Antibiotics are used in New Zealand (and around the world) to prevent or treat infections in patients undergoing relatively routine operations; Some examples include:
• • Around 25 – 30 percent of babies are delivered by caesarean section.
• • Hundreds of tonsillectomies are performed each year.
• • More than 11,000 hip and knee replacement surgeries are carried out each year.
• • More than 400 people on average are diagnosed with some form of cancer each year. Antibiotics are an integral part of many treatment options for cancer patients.
Common superbugs resistant to antibiotics in New Zealand:
• • In NZ, rates of MRSA infection more than doubled between 2006 and 2011.
• • In 2015, over a thousand people were infected with MRSA.
• • Children and young people with MRSA were more likely to be Māori or Pasifika, live in lower socio-economic areas, and catch the infection in their day-to-day activities.
• • Older people with MRSA were likely to be Pākehā and infected while in a hospital or another care facility.
Staphylococcus aureus (SA)
• • Around 30 percent of healthy humans carry SA, commonly in their nose and throat.
• • Between 2000 and 2011 more than 60,000 people were hospitalised with SA infection, most of which could be treated with antibiotics.
• • Around 10 children a week are admitted to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital with a disease caused by SA, of which around 7 percent are considered to have a life-threatening invasive disease.
Other superbugs increasingly resistant to antibiotics are: gonorrhoea, TB, Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumonia), meningitis, endocarditis, Salmonella and E.Coli.
* High Rates of Antibiotic Use in New Zealand
• • Total antibiotic consumption in New Zealand in 2013 was higher than 22 of 29 European countries participating in antibiotic consumption surveillance that year.
• • Antibiotic use in New Zealand increased by 49 percent between 2006 and 2014 and this increase occurred throughout the country across all ages and ethnic groups.
• • Antibiotic consumption is highest in the elderly (over 80 years) and in children under five.
• • Fungi are a proven source of antibiotics and most antibiotics in clinical use are from soil microbes.
• • When penicillin, an antibiotic made by the fungus Penicillium, was discovered in 1928, it changed modern medicine.
• • There are fungi native to New Zealand and the Pacific, reflecting our unique biodiversity, that have never been studied for their antibiotic potential.
• • To date, Dr Wiles’ lab have examined 300 fungi from the Landcare Research collection and found some able to kill MRSA and M. tuberculosis.
• • The availability of effective antibiotics, in tandem with other public health and medical advances, has helped decrease infant mortality in most western societies from about 20 percent in the late 19th century to less than one percent today.
• • Cure Kids is aware of many families in New Zealand dealing with the life-threatening consequences of antibiotic resistant infections and discovery of new antibiotics in this fungi will help provide new treatment options for the future.