Life-saving Australian discovery helps combat antibiotic resistance

20/07/2022 | 3 mins

Researchers have found a new method that can detect the presence of a bacterial infection and determine which antibiotics would be most effective for treatment in less than five hours, instead of days. 

A team from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, The University of Western Australia and PathWest Laboratory Medicine WA including Perth renal physician, Dr Aron Chakera and UWA Forrest Prospect Fellow, Dr Kieran Mulroney,  developed the faster, more effective process to confirm infections and find the most effective treatment. 

“The established method involves growing bacteria from a patient sample then applying different antibiotics to see which are effective,” Dr Mulroney said.

“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. 

“The biggest problem with prescribing broad-spectrum antibiotics is that it encourages some bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics.” 

The new method, published in the international medical journal The Lancet eBiomedicine, can predict which antibiotics will be effective to treat an infection with 96.9 per cent accuracy.

Dr Mulroney said the team has developed a two-step process that gave doctors evidence that enabled them to select the right antibiotic.

“First, we developed a test to confirm if the cause of the patient’s serious illness is a bacterial infection. This test takes 30 minutes, rather than  one to two days,” Dr Mulroney said.

“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.”

Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital renal physician Dr Chakera said for patients with chronic illnesses the discovery would be potentially life-saving. 

“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,” Dr Chakera said.

“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.

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

WA Country Health Service Translation Fellow, Dr Tim Inglis saw the method develop from its earliest test tube observations into a robust clinical laboratory method with a broad range of applications. 

“The time and effort it takes to produce accurate antibiotic test results make this technique very attractive to busy clinical laboratories,” Dr Inglis said. 

“Even in the most advanced health systems, hospital patients risk bacterial infection through trauma wounds, surgery sites, breathing machines and indwelling catheters. This can lead to pneumonia, urinary tract, abdominal and bloodstream infections," Dr Inglis said.

Applying the research team's new technology to these infections is expected to transform how quickly and effectively patients are treated.


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