The world's next big antibiotic could lie hidden in our native fungi - and scientists have turned to Kiwis for the quarter of a million dollars needed to help find it.

The Cure Kids-backed effort comes at a time when antibiotic resistance is posing one of the greatest public health threats of the modern age.

Each year, an estimated 700,000 people around the world die from drug-resistant infections, and this is predicted to rise to 10 million people a year by 2050.

The "Fight Against Superbugs" campaign aims to raise $250,000 to support critical research by scientists at the University of Auckland who will study 1000 fungi held in a collection by Landcare Research.


Fungi are a proven source of antibiotics, such as penicillin, and most antibiotics in clinical use are from soil microbes.

Well-known microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who heads the university's Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, and her team aim to mine prioritised fungi from the collection of 10,000 over the next year to identify pathogen-fighting properties.

The results of the work to date are promising - Wiles' team have piloted the approach, screening 300 fungi, using a cultivated form of bacteria that's been engineered to glow when alive.

When the bacteria stop glowing, this signals potential antimicrobial qualities in the fungi which then undergo more tests.

"We're really hopeful that we will make rapid progress in our search for new antibiotics."

Children are at increased risk and more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

"We are particularly hopeful we will identify fungi that are able to kill the bacteria responsible for many of the serious diseases rife in New Zealand such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)."

New Zealand has some of the highest rates of infectious diseases in the developed world.


This is coupled with high rates of antibiotic consumption.

Infectious diseases, such as MRSA, can cause skin, respiratory and bloodstream infections.

Most at risk of this potential killer are children under five and people over 65.

"We are running out of time, we need to find a solution," Wiles said.

"While current antibiotics have proved highly effective in the defence against infectious diseases, common bacteria regularly develop new strains that resist these antibiotics."

Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles is leading a Cure Kids-backed effort to hunt for potential antibiotics among native New Zealand and Pacific fungi. Photo / File
Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles is leading a Cure Kids-backed effort to hunt for potential antibiotics among native New Zealand and Pacific fungi. Photo / File

In her new book Antibiotic resistance - the end of modern medicine?, which explores the threat to humans, agriculture and animals from superbugs and antibiotic resistance, Wiles said antimicrobial resistance threatened to undo many of the medical achievements of the last century.


Last month, an article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal warned how a new family of super bug resistant to nearly all antibiotics was spreading here and posed a "serious and urgent threat".

But somewhere out there in New Zealand's biologically abundant and unique environment, she believed, lay the fungi that could give the world a new powerful drug.

"We've found heap of fungi that kill our glowing bacteria and are all ready to go for further testing, and we've got more fungi being identified every week.

"It seems to me, counter-intuitive, that we wouldn't find something novel.

"It's just a numbers game ... how many fungi will we need to screen? This is where the crowd-funding comes in."

Since Cure Kids began supporting the project's pilot programme 18 months ago, the organisation has received generous donations from individuals and businesses to help with the research, but more support is needed to move it into this next phase.


"Now we're inviting the wider community to help us raise the $250,000 needed to progress this project so a further 1000 fungi can be screened and analysed over the next 12 months," the group's research director, Tim Edmonds, said.

"We know that antibiotic resistance is an issue many New Zealanders are concerned about. Particularly for those children at greatest risk of infections.

"However, it can also seem like too big a problem to know how to help.

A group 30 fungi that are currently being tested by scientists. Photo / Supplied
A group 30 fungi that are currently being tested by scientists. Photo / Supplied

"This campaign gives everyone an opportunity to contribute and play a vital part in enabling our leading experts to search for an answer to this crisis."

Those who give certain amounts will receive special rewards: a $30 donation sees the donor receive the chance to nickname one of the fungi being tested; a $50 donation receives a limited edition print from New Zealand artist Otis Frizzell; a $100 donation will give the donor a glowing bacteria art kit.

Pledges of more than $1000 will give the donor an opportunity to take part in a one-hour bioluminescent session (painting with glowing bacteria) with Wiles.


Q&A: The battle against the bugs

Why does antibiotic resistance pose such a huge threat to humanity?
Dr Siouxsie Wiles explains.

What are the main factors that are contributing to antibiotic resistance?

The manufacture and use, or rather misuse, of antibiotics are two of the main factors contributing to resistance.

All over the world, antibiotics are taken by people and animals, as well as used on in horticulture and aquaculture.

Sometimes they are used to treat disease and other times they are used to prevent disease.

But for many years they've been misused, given or taken inappropriately for diseases they can't treat, or used at doses that are not effective.


Wherever they are present, they will provide an environment in which resistant microbes can thrive.

Why are we only hearing about this threat so much now? Was it Lord Jim O'Neil's 2014 report that has mainly made it a talking point?

Microbiologists and clinicians have been talking about this threat for quite a while, it was something I learned about when I did my undergraduate degree in the late 90s.

Since then, the number of resistant organisms has grown, and more and more are becoming harder to treat.

This will have been what put the issue on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) radar, and their global report published in 2014 really raised its profile.

Then in 2015 the World Health Assembly endorsed the WHOs global action plan to tackle the matter.


I think the reports from Lord O'Neill's review have certainly helped keep people talking about the issue.

And we must keep talking, because the more people know about it, the more chance we have of making progress on tackling it.

What needs to happen to tackle it, both from a policy and discovery standpoint?

There are three different avenues that need to be tackled.

The first is around the current manufacture and use of antibiotics and other antimicrobials (like antiviral and antifungal agents).

There needs to be a massive global effort to make sure these precious medicines are used more wisely and appropriately in human and veterinary medicine, and in agriculture, aquaculture and horticulture.


There also need to be strict regulations put on how contaminated waste from their manufacture is treated to make sure it doesn't end up in the environment.

Secondly, we need huge public investment in the discovery and development of new antimicrobial agents, vaccines, and other ways of preventing and treating infectious diseases.

Thirdly, we need to incentivise the private sector to also get involved in R & D.

How confident, or pessimistic, are you that we will or won't be able to keep ahead of bacteria?

I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll find a way through this crisis.

But that's probably because I'm an optimist by nature.


If I was a pessimist I probably wouldn't be able to get out of bed every day knowing what I know.

I desperately don't want us to face a future in which our life expectancy is reduced to 40, and the medical advances of the last 100 years are too risky to perform.

So I get up each day, and do whatever I can to try to prevent that future from happening.

At the present pace, how soon could it be before our drugs begin to fail, and what implications could this mean in cases like infections or surgery?

They are already failing for some patients.

Last year the US had their first death from an untreatable "superbug".


The number of cases like this are still small but already doctors are having to resort to less effective medicines, or ones with worse side effects, or ones that require a stay in hospital instead of people being able to be treated at home.

What's the New Zealand perspective on this issue: are we any less in danger than other developed nations?

New Zealand is in no less danger than other developed countries.

In fact, we might even be in more danger, partly because of our location in the world - we travel a lot, providing plenty of opportunity to "import" resistant microbes into New Zealand - and partly because of our high rates of infectious diseases - our rates for some infectious diseases are higher than many other developed nations.

Ultimately, for what it means to the human race, do you put this threat on par with other potentially catastrophic eventualities like global war or climate change?



I also think for many people, they will be personally impacted by antimicrobial resistance well before climate change.

Both war and climate change also exacerbate the issue.

Increasing temperatures and events like flooding will extend the ranges of some infectious diseases, as well as increase the frequency of epidemics.

War displaces large numbers of people, leaving them living in overcrowded unsanitary conditions, ideal for many infectious diseases to spread.

Antibiotic Resistance - the end of modern medicine? Siouxsie Wiles. BWB Texts, April 2017. RRP $14.99.