Alumna wins Academy Award for work on antibiotic resistant killers

A University of Melbourne researcher has been recognised for her work on drug-resistant strains of typhoid and dysentery, which are spreading through developing countries and making a comeback in developed countries via international travellers.

Kathryn Holt researchers

Associate Professor Kathryn Holt (MEpid 2011) has been awarded the Australian Academy of Science Gottschalk Medal for early-career scientists for her work on how antibiotic-resistant strains move from country to country.

Multidrug resistant typhoid is endemic in parts of Asia and Africa, and is estimated to kill 200,000 people a year. A third of the world’s population is at risk of contracting the disease.

Dysentery kills approximately 600,000 people worldwide each year. Highly drug-resistant strains have been reported in the US, Europe and Australia.

Dr Holt and her team at the Centre for Systems Genomics have been sequencing genomes — or taking ‘genetic fingerprints’ — of antibiotic-resistant pathogens and building data analysis tools to track their movement.

Her work has led to a better understanding of how disease-causing bacteria evolve and spread between countries.

Dr Holt has traced the origin of drug-resistant pathogens found in Africa to India, where bacteria became drug-resistant as a result of antibiotic overuse.

“Using genomics to analyse the ways certain disease-causing bacteria move between countries, we’ve built large databases and established processes and tools that health practitioners can use to monitor their local situation and understand where it fits it in the global context,” Dr Holt said.

Her work is now exploring how bacterial infections are spread in hospitals, where one in 10 patients develop an infection associated with their stay.

Life-saving surgical procedures and the use of devices such as catheters and ventilators carry a small risk of infections, which are usually treatable with antibiotics.

But if the infections are caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they can be difficult to manage.

Professor Fabienne Mackay, Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences, congratulated Dr Holt on the prestigious award.

“She is an inspiration to us, and in particular to younger women who are pursuing a career in scientific research.”

Banner: Dr Kathryn Holt (front, third from left). Image via Bio21