Rachel Fieldhouse


This Aussie discovery could save lives and beat antibiotic resistance

This Aussie discovery could save lives and beat antibiotic resistance

Many if not all of us have been sick because of bacteria, with a trip to the GP seeing us walk away with a script for some kind of antibiotic.

With bacterial infections having the potential to be quite deadly and causing people to deteriorate within hours while identifying the specific kind of bacteria (and which antibiotic is the best to treat with) can take days, doctors are often forced to use a best guess, “one-size-fits-all” antibiotic to treat patients.

But, patients could soon be treated with a more targeted option, thanks to a new testing method that could identify bacteria within hours.

A team of researchers from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, the University of Western Australia, and PathWest Laboratory Medicine WA have developed a process that first confirms that bacteria is causing a patient’s illness, before then determining which antibiotic will be the most effective.

Dr Kieran Mulroney, a UWA Prospect Fellow involved in the research, says this new method not only helps doctors find the best treatments for their patients, but also combats the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

“The established method involves growing bacteria from a patient sample then applying different antibiotics to see which are effective. Patients with serious infections cannot wait the several days it can take to return antibiotic test results. Consequently, the patient's doctor has to rely on a best guess, 'one-size-fits-all', antibiotic choice to treat patients,” he explains.

“The biggest problem with prescribing broad-spectrum antibiotics is that it encourages some bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics. This is a growing and serious problem world-wide, because antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread from person to person and reduce treatment options.

He says that using broad spectrum antibiotics is one of the “key drivers” in antibiotic resistance spreading.

“New tests are urgently needed that give doctors evidence they can rely on to select the right antibiotic” he says.

The new method consists of two stages, with the first involving a 30-minute test, rather than taking one to two days, to determine whether a person is ill as a result of a bacterial infection.

“Once a patient has a confirmed bacterial infection, we then expose the bacteria to different types of antibiotics in the laboratory. Using a device that measures hundreds of thousands of individual bacteria in just a few seconds, the research team can detect the damage antibiotics cause to bacteria, and then use this information to confirm which antibiotic will be an effective treatment. We can predict which antibiotics will be effective to treat that infection with 96.9% accuracy,” Dr Mulroney said.

Dr Aron Chakera, a renal physician at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital who was also involved in the research, says it could be potentially life-saving for patients with chronic illnesses.

“As a renal physician I treat patients with end-stage kidney disease who need to be in hospitals or clinics for several hours a week connected to dialysis machines. Many could manage their own dialysis using a surgically implanted catheter, which actually has better outcomes, is far less costly and is more satisfying for patients, but the ever-present fear of infection from the catheter deters many from choosing it,” Dr Charkera explains.

“This new test would give confidence to patients and their treating doctors.”

WA Country Health Service Translation Fellow Dr Tim Inglis, who was also involved in the research, notes that the need for rapid test results has been made all the more apparent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the challenge of antibiotic resistance will still remain once Covid has tailed off.

“Even in the most advanced health systems, hospital patients risk bacterial infection through trauma wounds, surgery sites, breathing machines and indwelling catheters,” he explains. 

“This can lead to pneumonia, urinary tract, abdominal and bloodstream infections. Applying the research team's new technology to these infections is expected to transform how quickly and effectively we treat patients in Western Australia and further afield.”

Their work was published in the international medical journal The Lancet eBiomedicine.

Image: Dr Kieran Mulroney (Scimex)

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