Superbugs resistant to antibiotics will become a global problem if antibiotic resistance is not halted but a Kiwi PhD student has won a scholarship which will allow him to join the ranks of scientists around the world working to solve the problem.
University of Otago PhD student Howard Maxwell has been awarded one of this year's Maori Health Research PhD Scholarships, worth almost $130,000, for a project which aims to find a way to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance between bacteria.
"Resistance mechanisms have been observed for nearly every antibiotic in our arsenal," Maxwell said. "We are rapidly approaching a post-antibiotic era where no treatment will exist against seemingly insignificant infections.
"It's becoming a huge global problem and it's kind of a bit scary."
Maori would be particularly vulnerable due to both increased susceptibility to infectious organisms and reliance on antibiotics, he said.
Maxwell said the Ministry of Health had acknowledged that Maori were disproportionately burdened by infectious diseases and that antibiotics were dispensed to a higher proportion of Maori than non-Maori.
"Maori are disproportionately affected by infectious diseases. If they are resistant, we are going to be the most affected," he said.
"Preventing the spread of antibiotic resistance will reduce the threat of infectious disease in Maori and result in better health outcomes."
His motivation came partly from being born and raised in Opotiki, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where his mainly Maori community was over-represented in poverty and poor health.
"I don't think many people from Opotiki get this sort of opportunity - I'd like to be one of many to pursue post-graduate education and academia as a way to benefit our community."
Maxwell said antibiotic resistance could be transferred between bacteria but the organisms also had a defence system which stopped invading genetic material.
Understanding more about how that defence system worked might allow scientists to prevent the transfer of antibiotic resistance between bacteria, he said.
Specifically, he planned to examine the communication processes within bacteria that controlled the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.
He would look at whether the inhibition of quorum sensing (a mechanism by which bacteria communicate) altered the spread of antibiotic resistance through its relationship to the CRISPR-Cas systems (a way in which bacteria arm themselves against invading genetic material).
"CRISPR-Cas is a rapidly developing field and various international groups and companies are already researching its potential for curing genetic disorders."
The Health Research Council manager of Maori research investment, Stacey Pene, said it was encouraging to see young researchers driven by the need to benefit their communities and all New Zealanders, especially in areas of rising urgency such as antibiotic resistance.
Maxwell's grant was one of 17 Maori career development awards announced in the council's latest funding round.
2018 HRC Maori health research career development awards
Maori Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship
Dr Belinda Borell, Massey University
Privilege and health inequity: the role for Matauranga Maori
Maori Health Research PhD Scholarship
Hannah Burgess, University of Auckland
Whanau consent: an expression of indigenous rights
Pania Bridge-Comer, University of Auckland
Effects of artificial sweetener in the maternal diet on offspring fertility
Blaise Forrester-Gauntlett, University of Waikato
Using pluripotent stem cells to determine the cellular basis of hearing loss
Dr Wiremu MacFater, University of Auckland
Perioperative local anaesthetic
Howard Maxwell, University of Otago, Dunedin
Does inhibition of quorum sensing increase antibiotic resistance spread?
Maori Health Research Masters Scholarship
Nari Hann, Massey University
The foster caregiving relationship with newborns who have feeding difficulties
Rangahau Hauora Training Grant
Denise Riini, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology
Improving Papakainga: Linking health, homes, and toiora
Maori Health Research Development Grant
Dr Mera Penehira, University of Auckland
Hinemoana: Our ocean narratives
Dr Armon James Tamatea, University of Waikato
Maori mental health in New Zealand prisons
Maori Health Research Knowledge Translation Grant
Associate Professor Jonathan Koea, Waitemata District Health Board
Developing a collaboration between rongoa Maori and western medicine
Maori Health Research Summer Studentship
Shania Dudson-Cooney, Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi
Maori mental health
Emma Espiner, Hapai Te Hauora
FASD and the media: an analysis of health promotion messages
Tobias Hoeta, University of Otago, Dunedin
Evidence for pain assessment tools sensitive for Maori - a systematic review
Tiana Mihaere, University of Otago, Dunedin
Ethnic discrimination prevalence and health associations in NZ youth
Frances Toohey, University of Auckland
Literature review for Pae Herenga study
Jordan Tewhaiti-Smith, University of Otago, Wellington
Maximising Maori participation for measuring unmet need in secondary healthcare