A/Prof Tony Velkov secures $2.3m grant to combat superbugs

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant funds international research into optimising antibiotics in the face of rapidly emerging antibiotic resistance.

Associate Professor Tony Velkov of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics is leading a global research project, which aims to increase the efficacy of existing antibiotics in the treatment of central nervous system (CNS) infections due to multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The emergence of these ‘superbugs’ is a growing global problem. Overuse of antibiotics is causing bacteria to develop resistance to multiple antibiotics at an unprecedented rate. The infections caused by these resistant bacteria are significantly harder to treat, as they no longer respond effectively to antibiotic drugs.

There is an urgent need to discover new antibiotics to combat these pathogens but this cannot be relied upon given the current rate of growing antibiotic resistance. While antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, the misuse and over-prescription of antibiotic drugs is greatly accelerating this process.

“If bacteria continue developing resistance to multiple antibiotics at the present rate and at the same time the antibiotic pipeline continues to dry up, there could be catastrophic costs to healthcare and society globally,” says Professor Velkov.

The World Health Organisation classifies antibiotic resistance as one of today’s most significant global threats, and is reaching dangerously high levels in all parts of the world. While this could be detrimental to global health, it also has the potential to compromise food security and broader development.

Professor Velkov’s research focuses on polymyxins, a class of antibiotics currently considered to be a last line of defence against multidrug-resistant bacterial infections. The treatment of CNS infections with polymyxins is particularly problematic, as it is associated with high mortality rates due to the drugs’ nephrotoxicity and limited ability to penetrate the CNS.

Therefore the project is aiming to increase the efficacy of polymyxins while minimising toxicity in patients and the antibiotic resistance of bacteria. It will also provide the first ever toxicity data to support safer and more effective treatment of CNS superbug infections using polymyxin therapies.

Key collaborators in the research project are the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan and Monash University.