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A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital

15 May 2018

Dr Norelle Sherry - Fighting Superbugs

The Melbourne Genomic Health Alliance spoke with Dr Norelle Sherry, an infectious diseases physician and clinical microbiologist at Austin Health and a clinician-researcher at the Doherty Institute about her work in the Melbourne Genomics' Controlling Superbugs project.

The projects aims to identify potential antibiotic-resistant bacteria – superbugs – outbreaks before they become a threat. This project is jointly led by Professor Lindsay Grayson from Austin Health, and Professor Benjamin Howden from the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit (MDU) Public Health Laboratory, based at the Doherty Institute.

What is your role in the project?
I am the clinical co-leader of the Controlling Superbugs project. My job involves coordinating the collection of patient data and antibiotic-resistant bacterial isolates ('superbugs') from the four hospital networks involved. I also oversee the bacterial DNA sequencing and analysis at the MDU Public Health Laboratory. Once we analyse these data, we visit hospitals to explain results and determine what impact bacterial genomics can have on patient care.

Can you tell us a bit about you?
I studied medicine at Monash University, completed physician training at the Alfred Hospital, and went on to specialise in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology before moving into research as a PhD student at University of Melbourne. My time is now split between research, including the Controlling Superbugs project, and clinical work in infectious diseases at Austin Health. My research interests include antimicrobial (antibiotic) resistance and translating genomics into clinical and public health practice.

What does the project hope to achieve?
This world-leading project is assessing whether genomic sequencing can track the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in real-time across multiple hospitals, improving control of superbugs and preventing further spread. The aim is to identify potential superbug outbreaks before they become a threat and therefore prevent infections, enhancing protection for the most vulnerable hospital patients.

Rapid genomic sequencing of superbugs means that results can be reported in a matter of days, enabling real-time action to reduce infection risk.

What excites you about this work?
Superbugs are a rapidly-escalating global problem, and we require cutting-edge tools such as genomic sequencing to fight them. It's very exciting working on this project because it is one of the first internationally to investigate the use of rapid genomic sequencing to identify potential outbreaks of resistant bacteria and prevent further spread. 

Sequencing may also help identify the best treatment for a patient’s superbug infection and prevent further drug resistance. Given most people infected with superbugs have serious illnesses, it is vital we reduce infections in these vulnerable patients because these infections can quickly become a matter of life and death.

This project is also developing a new library of genomic data on superbugs in Victoria to inform healthcare services and government. This data bank will serve as a valuable resource research tool in the development of new drugs and new diagnostic tests for superbugs.

Who is involved?
Experts at Austin Health, The Royal Melbourne Hospital, Monash Health and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, together with the specialist genomics laboratory at the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory, are testing bacterial isolates from 1,700 patients. The project is being jointly led by Austin Health’s Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Department and the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory based at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

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