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16 Dec 2021

Granting a wish for new ideas: Dean’s Innovation Grants

* First published by the University of Melbourne 

Dr Stephanie Neville  been awarded the 2021 Dean's Innovation Award for her research into bacterial antibiotic resistance.

Winning an award is always satisfying but an award for new ideas is an entirely different proposition. The Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Dean’s Innovation Grants explores and rewards key ideas, new theories and concepts.

The grant scheme aims to boost the Faculty’s commercial pipeline for scientific discoveries by supporting the development of innovative projects to a stage where they are well positioned to attract subsequent funding from government, industry or venture capital to progress to the next phase of Research & Development.

Dr Neville is from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute and the 2021 winner of the Dean’s Innovation Award. The grant of $50,000 will allow her to tackle a silent enemy: to address the global issue of bacterial antibiotic resistance and the current implications facing all of us.

Antibiotic resistance is caused by the overuse or misuse of our current antibiotics, and the result is that people are now contracting bacterial infections that doctors have no way to treat. Without a more efficient pipeline for novel antibiotic development, we need another solution for combatting this issue globally.

With a diminished antibiotic pipeline, we have a limited arsenal of antibiotics that are still effective against multi-drug resistant bacterial pathogens. Put simply, many of the drugs we know and have been prescribed are not working as they used to.

Many of the last line antibiotics and more recent therapies are either highly expensive, limiting who has access to them, or have side-effects that render them only suitable as a last resort. The more we rely on these last line antibiotics, the greater the chance of the bacteria also becoming resistant to them.

Dr Neville and her collaborators are investigating the use of ‘ionophores’. These are small molecules that are able to move high concentrations of metal ions into bacterial cells. When ionophores are given with our current in-use antibiotics, they are able to break antibiotic resistance in bacterial ESKAPE pathogens, making our old antibiotics work again.

“Some of the bacterial species that present the greatest risk for multi- or extreme-drug resistance are referred to as the ESKAPE pathogens. Infection with these bacteria can present as anything from soft tissue infections, to urinary tract infections, to pneumonia and meningitis. These infections can be innately difficult to treat, but when antibiotic resistant strains are encountered, treatment failure can be lethal.

“Our lab has always been interested in the way the host immune system uses metals to kill invading bacteria. The work with ionophores was an extension of the fundamental research we had done to understand how bacterial pathogens resist host metal stress. Given the critical need for new antimicrobial approaches, we wanted to apply our fundamental research into development of novel therapeutics,” Dr Neville said.

With the support from the Dean’s Innovation Grant, Dr Neville and her team will start the process of therapeutically developing ionophores to be given with current antibiotics. The hope is that this will allow researchers to overcome antibiotic resistance by rescuing our current antibiotic arsenal.

“Our current frontline antibiotics are safe, readily available and inexpensive, but resistance to them is already widespread. By co-administering ionophores with these antibiotics, we will be able to continue using them to treat even drug-resistant bacterial infections in the broader population. In five years time, it would be fantastic to see a huge decrease in the morbidity and mortality associated with antibiotic resistant bacterial infections.”

Dean of MDHS Professor Jane Gunn says these awards are crucial for sparking innovation that can result in advanced and sophisticated capabilities.

“As a Faculty, we are committed to building a culture that supports innovation. Our researchers are opening up important lines of scientific enquiry and creating new avenues for solutions to challenging problems.”