Research to solve antibiotic resistance

Maxwell plans to examine the communication processes within bacteria that control the spread of antibiotic resistance genes. File photo.

A University of Otago PhD student is doing his bit to curb antibiotic resistance and subsequently reduce the threat of infectious disease among Maori communities.

Opotiki-born, Howard Maxwell, has just been awarded a Maori Health Research PhD Scholarship as part of the Health Research Council's 2018 career development awards.

His research centres on microbiology and his passion lies in limiting and reducing the spread of antibiotic resistance - one of the fastest growing health crises in the world.

"Resistance mechanisms have been observed for nearly every antibiotic in our arsenal," says Maxwell. "We are rapidly approaching a post-antibiotic era where no treatment will exist against seemingly insignificant infections".

Maori, he says, will be particularly vulnerable if this happens, due to both increased susceptibility to infectious organisms and reliance on antibiotics.

The Ministry of Health acknowledges that Maori are disproportionately burdened by infectious diseases and that antibiotics are dispensed to a higher proportion of Maori than non-Maori, says Maxwell.

"Preventing the spread of antibiotic resistance will reduce the threat of infectious disease in Maori and result in better health outcomes," he says.

Maxwell plans to examine the communication processes within bacteria that control the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

He's particularly interested in quorum sensing (a mechanism by which bacteria communicate) and its relationship to CRISPR-Cas systems (a way in which bacteria arm themselves against invading genetic material).

Before anyone can begin to manipulate these systems, he says, it's important to understand how their components coordinate and communicate with one another.

It's a task that's keeping researchers around the globe busy, and Maxwell is thrilled to be joining their ranks.

"CRISPR-Cas is a rapidly developing field and various international groups and companies are already researching its potential for curing genetic disorders," he says.

Maxwell was first introduced into the research environment last summer, where he conducted a short research project within the Fineran Laboratory at the University of Otago.

The $129,900 grant from the HRC will help him build on that work and build his research expertise.

He feels that addressing health issues for Maori requires a diverse approach that not only incorporates public health initiatives, but is partnered by the investigation of fundamental biology.

"I'm both curious and excited in the way that organisms function and interact with each other, people and the environment. This grant is giving me the opportunity to pursue that passion.

"It's also a good thing for my community - I don't think many people from Opotiki get this sort of opportunity - I'd like to be one of many to pursue postgraduate education and academia as a way to benefit our community," he says.

The HRC's senior manager of Maori Health Research Investment, Stacey Pene, says it's encouraging to see young researchers driven by the need to benefit their communities and all New Zealanders, especially in areas of rising urgency such as antibiotic resistance.



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The moon peeping through the clouds at Pillans Point. Photo: Mike Berry.

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