Legionella bacteria. Image credit: Darren Brown and Nathan King.
Legionella bacteria. Image credit: Darren Brown and Nathan King.

8 June 2013

Scientists at The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience are leading the way in seeking new drugs to give medical experts better ways of preventing infection by legionella bacteria and treating legionnaires' disease.

IMB Deputy Director (Research) Professor Jenny Stow and Associate Professor Rohan Teasdale are chief investigators on the research program working in partnership with leading microbiologist Professor Elizabeth Hartland at The University of Melbourne.

They are working together as part of an $8.9-million five-year National Health and Medical Research Council program called ‘Fighting infection: exploiting host-pathogen interactions’.

Professor Stow said this research team was one of the few working on legionella in Australia. The team would help host the 8th International Conference on Legionella in Melbourne in October.

This week’s legionella outbreak in Brisbane has been a timely reminder of how much more there is to know about these superbugs before we can effectively control them,” Professor Stow said.

“Legionella are robust bacteria and can survive in a wide range of water-based environments. They can infect in as little as 15 minutes and spread uncontrolled in the lungs of people with diminished immunity.

“Our research at IMB investigates how legionella bacteria replicate inside human cells. Legionella mimics the function of many human proteins in order to grow inside cells in the lungs.

“Work is also focused on understanding the immune response to infection and why some people are more susceptible to legionnaires' disease.

“Queenslanders are keen to know what is being done to prevent future outbreaks of this disease and we want them to know the research we do today will make a difference to how we treat those affected by future outbreaks,” she said.

Professor Stow said the team’s discovery research would provide new insights into host-pathogen interactions and reveal new drug targets to target the bacteria and also to boost our immune responses.

“Health authorities are doing the best job possible to respond to this outbreak with the resources and expertise available but better treatments are needed.

“Through this research, we can discover improved treatments that will help our medical experts to gain greater control over these bacteria and protect the health of those people most at risk,” Professor Stow said.

In addition to discovering and developing better treatments, IMB infectious disease expert Professor Matt Cooper says there is an urgent need for improved government regulations.

“Currently, there is no national standard nor legal requirement in Australian to report the type and number of cases of superbug infections in hospitals,” Professor Cooper said.

“We know from policies instigated in the UK, where golden staph outbreaks were out of control, that introducing a compulsory reporting system can cut these incidence of these infections in half, which will save both dollars and lives.

“This is a challenge that requires legislative action and conviction from our political leaders. I urge them to act now for the health of our community.”

Media contact: Gemma Ward, IMB acting communications officer on 0439 651 107.

Make a difference today by donating to IMB’s drug discovery research at www.imb.uq.edu/donate or call (07) 3346 2132.

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing personalised medicine, drug discovery and biotechnology.

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