A legacy fighting the war on superbugs
When Helga ‘Bertha’ Sudholz passed away in 1960, she made it clear where she wanted to make a difference. She bequeathed £2000 to the University of Adelaide to fund a scholarship for students presenting a thesis that covers diseases of the ear, nose and throat.
Fifty-five years later, her bequest is still making a difference through support for Katharina Richter, the 2015 scholarship recipient who is fighting the war on superbugs.
German-born Katharina is a PhD student from the Discipline of Surgery, and the Ear, Nose and Throat Surgery Department at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She is researching promising new treatments targeting severe and recurring sinus infections. These infections are caused by bacteria that are frequently resistant to antibiotics.
With her pharmaceutical background and expertise in drug delivery and drug targeting, Katharina has the ideal skillset to develop treatments to fight superbugs.
“A major threat to human health is the rise of superbugs, when microorganisms like Golden Staph become resistant to antibiotics,” she says.
“Through my work as a pharmacist I saw first hand the increasing problems with antibiotic resistant bacteria, people’s devastating conditions and the lack of effective therapies.”
Katharina is researching two alternative treatments to antibiotics. The first approach aims to destroy the bacteria through their nutrient pathways.
“This is a two-pronged strategy where we introduce a compound that will deplete nutrients and starve bacteria so they become vulnerable. The second compound mimics their food source and, once taken up by hungry bacteria, the compound exhibits toxic effects,” she says.
The compounds will be placed into wound healing gel that is clinically used after surgery. The gel’s wound healing properties are then complemented with antibacterial activity. As the gel is applied directly to the site of infection it will fight the bacteria more efficiently and prevent severe side effects throughout the body.
Katharina anticipates clinical trials for this treatment will begin in 2017.
Clinical trials are currently underway for the second treatment which is based on silver nanoparticles. Invisible to the naked eye, they are 1/1000 the width of human hair and are given to the patient in a nasal flush.
“Severe and chronic infections present as a cluster of bacteria covered in a slimy matrix called biofilms,” says Katharina.
“Biofilms act like an armour and protect the bacteria from the immune system and medications – the thicker the biofilm, the less likely antibiotics will work and the easier it is for bacteria to establish resistance.
“Due to their tiny size, the nanoparticles are able to penetrate the biofilm, then react with the bacteria and kill them.”
Katharina hopes the two treatments will improve the quality of life for people suffering from chronic nasal infections and extend their symptom-free period.
The Bertha Sudholz scholarship allowed Katharina to attend a conference about biofilms in Chicago where she established international collaborations.
“It was a very productive conference. I met and discussed my work with international experts in the field, generating new ideas and getting inspiration for the future direction of my research to strengthen our fight against superbugs,” she says.
The scholarship has grown to an endowment fund now standing at almost $120,000.
3 Minute Thesis People’s Choice Award
Katharina recently presented her research in the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. She made it through to the final and won the ‘People’s Choice Award’. 3MT requires researchers to explain their thesis project in just three minutes, using only one PowerPoint slide. The ability to effectively communicate research impact is a skill that all our researchers aim to develop.
Katharina's presentation Bug Wars - Battlefront Biofilms can be viewed on the University of Adelaide YouTube channel.
Story by Renée Capps