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Tall Poppy winner ‘weeds out’ bacterial superbugs

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Credit: QUT Media

QUT molecular microbiologist Makrina Totsika is at the forefront of research to develop new therapies to beat multi-drug resistant bacteria.

Dr Totsika, from QUT's Institute of Health Biomedical Innovation (IHBI), was named joint Queensland Young Tall Poppy Scientist of the Year, alongside UQ's Dr Barnaby Dixson.

Dr Totsika and Dr Dixson were each awarded $7,500 in support of their research.

"My work aims to understand how superbugs cause disease and design new drugs against them," Dr Totsika said.

"Through a unique approach of disarming rather than killing superbugs, we are now developing a new class of drugs that can treat antibiotic-resistant infections."

Dr Totsika leads a team of research students and staff investigating the pathogenesis of superbugs and new ways of preventing them from sticking to host cells, which is the first step of the infection process.

More than 700,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections worldwide with numbers predicted to reach up to 10 million annual deaths by 2050, if nothing is done.

Due to overuse and misuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, many bacteria causing diseases such as urinary tract infections, bloodstream infections, foodborne diarrhoea and tuberculosis are now resistant to most available antibiotics.

"Resistance is a natural phenomenon as old as bacteria but antibiotic overuse and misuse has led to the alarming rates of resistance we see today worldwide," Dr Totsika said.

Her research is aimed at targeting a pathogen's adherence to cells and evaluating several inhibitors that block bacterial adhesion.

"By understanding this, it now guides us in developing novel anti-adhesion therapeutics that can block bacterial adherence and be used to treat infections," she said.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Dr Totsika and collaborators demonstrated that oral inhibitors of a bacterial adhesin — a protein that allows bacteria to recognise bladder cells and bind to them — could be used to successfully prevent and treat multidrug resistant urinary tract infection in preclinical animal models.

Through two ongoing National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grants involving collaboration with leading experts in Australia and the US, Dr Totsika's research is expected to lead to next-generation antimicrobials that will be tailored to each patient's infection.

Dr Totsika is currently supported by a QUT Vice-Chancellor's Senior Research Fellowship in infectious diseases.

Dr Totsika is also passionate about promoting public understanding of science and is actively involved in QUT's School Engagement Program where high-school students are hosted in her lab in Brisbane each year for a weeklong research internship on "hairy scary bugs."

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