With more and more bacterial infections becoming drug resistant, questions are being asked about how medicine will treat these illnesses in the future.

Dr Mark Blaskovich
Photo: The University of Queensland

Dr Mark Blaskovich and his team of researchers at Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland believes they could have a potential answer.

Their research focuses on using antibodies to selectively diagnose and treat bacterial infections.

Dr Blaskovich explained the new approach is like using a targeted missile to treat an infection instead of the traditional method of broad-spectrum antibiotics which is more akin to carpet bombing.

The technique allows for a high concentration of antibiotics to be delivered to a specific cell type – in this case the bacteria causing the infection – which kills it, curing the patient.

“What we were looking to do was to attach a payload to antibodies that would contain something known to be toxic to the bacteria so an antibiotic is the most obvious choice,” he said.

The method would have the benefits of reducing a patient’s exposure to the antibiotic and lowering the possibility of side effects or complications, including damage to helpful bacteria living in a patient.

Dr Blaskovich believes the technique could also be used to diagnose bacterial infections much more quickly than current testing which can take 24 hours or longer to confirm a diagnosis.

“With the advances in diagnostics, within probably five years, hopefully there will be a pathway where you can rapidly sample the infection and tell that it is, for example, a pseudomonas as opposed to e-coli and then use the bacterial specific treatment if that’s been developed in parallel,” he said.

He envisages that the tests could be rolled out to medical clinics and used by GPs to rule out bacterial infections and help them break the bad news that the patient has a cold or the flu, for which antibiotics are useless but often prescribed.

With the help of a Global Connections Fund bridging grant, Dr Blaskovich partnered with Visterra, a biotechnology company based in Massachusetts who specialise in using antibody therapy to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer.

The project had reached test tube proof of concept stage and was showing positive results when Visterra was bought by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, a Japanese global healthcare company in September 2018.

Unfortunately for Dr Blaskovich, the new owners of Visterra decided to discontinue research into several projects including theirs.

He is hopeful the company will send the project data and the actual antibodies to his team’s research facilities at The University of Queensland.

Once returned, Dr Blaskovich believes his team would be able to advance the work enough to apply for other research grants or attract the interest of another research collaborator who could take the work in a different direction.

“One of the things we were trying to do with this collaboration was come up with a new and better way of selectively targeting the bacteria,” he said.

“There’s so much room and scope for developing different variations of how it’s done. Because this is all very early stage research, there’s no guarantee as to which approach is going to be successful.

Profile of Dr Blaskovich written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.