Chris O’Brien Lifehouse part of infection reduction team

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Medical devices such as catheters, feeding tubes, implants and pacemakers are often a magnet for infection but a team of scientists have been recognised for a breakthrough that could significantly reduce infection rates.

The team from Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney and Macquarie University were recently honoured at the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) annual Research Excellence Awards in Canberra.

Head of Physics Research and Education at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, Associate Professor Natalka Suchowerska, said it was a collaborative effort.

“Our idea is about preventing potentially deadly hospital-acquired infections that occur when microbes colonise medical devices like catheters and feeding tubes,” she said.

“Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable and any type of infection prolongs healing and recovery.

“This research has the potential to solve a pressing global health problem.”

Microbial colonisation of medical devices accounts for 50 percent of hospital-acquired infections.

Bacteria are attracted to the surfaces of medical devices – they crawl along them and start to multiply, causing an infection.

Until now, the response to this was to remove the device and give the patient a big dose of antibiotics.

The new approach involves coating the surface of the device with an antibacterial peptide that works almost like Teflon, creating a surface on which bacteria will not grow.

They cannot multiply, and ultimately they die.

Through the work of the team, three critical elements have come together to solve this problem:

  • Melimime – a powerful antibacterial peptide, invented by Mark Wilcox, Professor at the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of New South Wales.
  • Plasma technology to bind the peptide to the surface of the device, invented by David McKenzie, Professor of Materials Physics at the University of Sydney.
  • The opportunity to evaluate the solution against clinical needs, provided by Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Associate Professor Natalka Suchowerska, Head of Physics Research and Education.

The team received the ‘Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award’ for the top-ranked NHMRC Ideas Grant.

The prestigious awards recognise recent outstanding performance in the health and medical research field.

The Ideas Grant scheme supports innovative research projects, and each year the best idea is selected for recognition via a highly competitive peer review process.

“Scientists from diverse disciplines and institutions have put their minds together to come up with the critical pieces of the puzzle – culminating in a way of treating the surfaces of medical devices to make them resistant to microbial colonisation,” A/Prof Suchowerska said.

Professors Wilcox and McKenzie and A/Prof Suchowerska also collaborated with Professors Naresh Kumar and Cyrille Boyer from University of NSW, Professor Jonathon Clark AM from Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, and Professor Karen Vickery from Macquarie University on the successful grant.

The expertise in the team ranges across materials physics, plasma physics and medical physics, microbiology, biochemistry and surgery.

“Medical devices, such as pacemakers, catheters and artificial joints can become infected and cause issues for hospitals and patients, in the worse cases death,” Prof Wilcox said.

“I look forward to investigating ways to protect medical devices and stop them from becoming infected.”

The award is named after Australian Nobel Laureates Professors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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