PM Award grants research project new Asian impetus

It’s a little known bacterium with a global reach and its presence in the human system can go unnoticed for a lifetime.

Group B streptococcus (GBS) affects one third of the world’s female population at any given time but because of its miniscule and mysterious make-up it usually has little bearing on a person’s health and wellbeing.

GBS survives in the bowel, bladder and genital tract of many women but can manifest life-threatening diseases such as sepsis and meningitis in some individuals.

The organism also has the capacity to seriously affect the future health of babies of pregnant women who are usually unaware that they are carrying GBS.

While a baby has only a small chance of suffering the knock-on effects of GBS from its infected mother, a Griffith Health Institute microbiologist is focusing his energies and hard-won funding on reducing the chances even further.

“Any baby can be colonized with the bacteria within days of their birth and this transmission can lead to pneumonia and serious blood infection in the baby,” Chee Keong (CK) Tan, a PhD candidate at Griffith’s School of Medical Science, says.

“Because there are usually no symptoms in adult carriers, GBS can go unnoticed in healthy mothers, and can disappear and recur in a women’s body. We have no idea how this happens.”

CK Tan (pictured), a Malaysian native, received a prestigious Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award worth $63,500 to develop his GBS research.

The award has opened the door for him to extend his investigation into Thailand where he will collaborate with physicians and clinical microbiologists to study colonized women.

CK is optimistic that comparing a new Thai database of GBS disease, the first of its kind from Asia, with analysed samples from the United States and Australia will significantly improve our understanding of GBS.

“I want to find out how this bacterium survives in the human host. It appears to use some way of evading human efforts to resist it.

“I will establish a novel surveillance program in Thailand looking at the prevalence of disease in women, particularly those that relate to poor outcomes of pregnancy and newborn’s health.

“We aim to identify strains of GBS among patients at Ramathibodi Hospital, affiliated with Mahidol University in Bangkok, to study the types of bacteria that are prevalent, the extent and success of antibiotic resistance. Perhaps, we will also establish new measures of disease to better understand the story of this strange organism.”

CK Tan will bring a scientific wealth of experience from Griffith University and his work at University of Alabama in the United States and Westmead Hospital in Sydney to his endeavours in Bangkok where he also aims to enhance diagnostic efficiencies and laboratory testing.

He was presented with the Endeavour Award by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Senator Chris Evans, at a Parliament House dinner following an afternoon with the Prime Minister in December 2011.

He describes it as a privilege to represent Australia in Thailand, and is determined to carry out corresponding data-collection exercises in Australia.

“I hope this could eventually lead to a long-term epidemiology study between Australia and Thailand. It would be best to compare the Asian and US data with Australian data.

“That would be a much better comparison. Government funding such as the Prime Minister’s Endeavour Award is so important to help us to explore these possibilities.”