As more bacteria become drug-resistant, scientists are racing to find new and improved antibiotics to fight superbugs and potentially life-threatening infections.
So colossal is the problem that the World Health Organisation has named antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest threats to human health.
Some bacteria are turning into superbugs, meaning they are becoming immune to multiple types of antibiotics, signalling an urgent need to create alternative solutions.
Amid the uphill battle against the antibiotic shortage, the humble fungi has emerged as a promising, untapped resource – and the most recent discovery has been made right here in Australia.
Flinders University PhD candidate Samra Qaraghuli made the novel finding while screening wild mushrooms for antibiotic properties in South Australia’s Deep Creek and surrounding regions.
Mrs Qaraghuli, who moved from Baghdad to Adelaide in 2013 to conduct the study, recently took out the top prize at the AMP Amplify Ignite awards for her research efforts.
She competed against 17 PhD students from nine universities to make it through to this year’s final round of the competition, winning a $5000 prize to go toward her research fund.
Speaking to The New Daily during World Antibiotic Awareness Week in mid-November, the Iraqi-born researcher, who fell in love with science as a young child, says this work would not have been possible in her home country.
“In Iraq, the environment, atmosphere and the situation – it’s a war area, there is not much macrofungi and even if there are a few, it’s in an area that is difficult to research,” Mrs Qaraghuli said.
“Here in Australia, macrofungi are an untapped resource. We need to explore them more and more, because there’s so much in it.
“The mushrooms are supported by the environment, and there’s a variety of species of macrofungi [in South Australia]. So it’s a really great resource to explore.”
Upon arriving in Australia, Mrs Qaraghuli took English classes for six months before starting her PhD in the College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University.
She completed her thesis under the guidance of research supervisor Emeritus Professor David Catcheside, and associate supervisors, Mike Perkins, an Associate Professor and chemist from Flinders University, and biochemist Emeritus Professor Leigh Burgoyne.
Professor Catcheside, a microbial geneticist who has been working with macrofungi since 1966, told The New Daily the discovery could one day lead to a treatment for a range of bacterial infections.
“The compound that she discovered is a novel one … it looks like it might be possible to build a whole family of other compounds with antibiotic properties,” he said.
“This is rather important for antibiotics because they have a relatively short lifetime, and this is because of the build up of antibiotic resistance in the target bacteria.
“So you need to keep on removing antibiotics that are overused and no longer useful and replace them with others, and we believe this compound, this antibiotic, shows promise of giving rise to such a family,” Professor Catcheside said.
The fight against #AntibioticResistance depends on greater investment in research and development of new antibiotics, vaccines, and diagnostic tools.
We must act now, change can’t wait. #StopDrugResistancehttps://t.co/8AdgPQ5toj pic.twitter.com/JhcUWFRzSa
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 16, 2018
The discovery came from one of six fungal species that were collected and examined in the field and lab.
With the help of Professor Catcheside’s wife, Pam, who is also a macrofungi expert and honorary research associate for the State Herbarium of South Australia, the research team was able to identify the fungi by name before screening them for bioactive compounds.
The species showed antibacterial activity against golden staph infection, which can cause life-threatening illnesses such as pneumonia and blood poisoning.
Caused by the hardy Staphylococcus aureus germ, golden staph (so-called because of its characteristic yellow-hued pus) has gained notoriety as one of the most reported drug-resistant infections in the world.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is partly contributing to the resistance problem.
“With antibiotics, the more we use them the less effective they become,” Mrs Qaraghuli said.
As the window to fight drug resistance shortens, looking to alternative, natural sources is proving to be a promising avenue.
But it’s not the only solution. According to public health experts, individuals can play a big role in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Using antibiotics only when needed and as prescribed, and practising good hygiene to stop the spread of infection, are just some simple ways that a person can prevent the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
As for Mrs Qaraghuli’s work, and many others like hers, there is great promise but still some way to go before a potential treatment can be rolled out to the public.
“Lab experiments have to be proven in practice, and that is a whole other process,” Professor Catcheside said.
“What we have is a compound, which may be useful and may give rise to a family of new antibiotics.
“The next step is making derivative compounds and looking at their effectiveness on bacteria, as we’d like to improve on what we’ve got at the moment.”