Stubborn bacteria and so-called super-bugs are in the sights of researchers worldwide, and just a decade out from the centenary of the discovery of penicillin, World Science Festival Brisbane (WSF) will explore whether a whole new approach is needed.

Leading discussions at the Bugs & Drugs – The Resistance Wars Toowoombaevent (16 March) will be Griffith University Microbiologist and Institute for Glycomics Research Leader, Associate Professor Kate Seib, who has her own sights set on some particularly nasty bacteria.

Dr Seib’s research into different kinds of vaccines for middle ear infections, meningococcal disease and the intractable STI gonorrhoea will hopefully find solutions, before the super-bugs get the better of us.

“Vaccines really need to be the long-term solution, because some of these bugs just continue to mutate to resist new antibiotics, which only really buy us a small amount of time,” Dr Seib said.

“The classes of bacteria I’m investigating only affect humans — so they’re very well adapted to surviving inside our bodies.

The bacteria that causes common middle-ear infections in kids, for example, is the main reason why kids are prescribed antibiotics, so we really need new solutions.”

Associate Professor Kate Seib in the lab

Associate Professor Kate Seib in the lab

New ‘structural’ approach to disable bacteria

Glycomics promises a new frontier of drug and vaccine discovery, 90 years after Alexander Fleming invented the first antibiotic.

Associate Professor Seib is part of a team led by fellow research leader Professor Yaoqi Zhou, that is using computational modelling to design different new types of naturally occurring peptides, to disrupt specific proteins that are essential for bacterial survival.

They hope to inhibit the actual structure of key bacterial proteins, as opposed to the normal antibiotic approach, which targets an active site, on a specific protein, by binding to that site and inhibiting its function.

While pathogens can constantly mutate to overcome being targeted at their weakest points, it’s hoped they’ll find it difficult to overcome large-scale changes in the structure of essential proteins — their defences will be effectively disabled.

N. gonorrhoeae (ng) bug

N. gonorrhoeae (ng) bug

“Professor Zhou has computationally designed peptides that target several different targets, and we’ve shown in my laboratory that these peptides are able to inhibit growth of antibiotic resistant strains of Neisseria gonorrhoeae,” Associate Professor Seib said.

Associate Professor Seib has previously been awarded a National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Career Development Fellowship (CDF) with more than $1 million in funding, and was the 2016 winner of the ASM Frank Fenner Award by the Australian Society for Microbiology (ASM).

Now the convenor of this year’s ASM national conference, she believes it’s important for women to have visibility outside the lab, and not just in terms of publications, and will be using her WSF event to encourage her science sisters and motivate budding female researchers.

“Involvement in professional organisations, mentoring and science communication are all ways to gain profile and encourage other women into science,” Associate Professor Seib said.

“Ultimately, I hope our work will lead to the discovery of new drugs, or a vaccine, that can put an end to the super-bugs that cause gonorrhoea.”

Griffith University is proud to partner with the Queensland Museum for the World Science Festival Brisbane from 21-25 March 2018.