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McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Newsmagazine — Volume 9, Issue 3, Fall 2015

McMaster leads fight against antibiotic resistance

The figures are startling. By 2050, an estimated 10 million people will die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. That's more than cancer and road traffic accidents combined. Experts warn the economic toll associated with this potential crisis will be immense, resulting in a global gross domestic product (GDP) loss of more than $100 trillion by the same year.

"Without antibiotics there is no modern medicine," says Gerry Wright, scientific director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR) at McMaster University. "It's as simple as that."

McMaster is leading the global crusade against this growing crisis. With a cross-disciplinary group of more than 40 principal investigators targeting the complex problems of antimicrobial drug resistance, its researchers are speeding the discovery of new drugs and tracking and characterizing resistance before it emerges in the clinic.

Our researchers have dedicated more than two decades to the escalating global challenge of infectious disease, and now, with antibiotic resistance at the world's doorstep, our world-class researchers are providing breakthrough impact on a world scale.

— Gerry Wright

This past spring, Wright was awarded a $3.5-million grant from the Ontario government to allow him and his team to explore innovative ways to address the need for new drugs. The grant was among $15 million in research funding awarded to McMaster this past June under the Ontario Research Fund (ORF) program.

Wright's grant will build on an already well-established research program. For example, in 2011, his group found that antibiotic resistance is ancient, by identifying resistance genes in 30,000-year-old permafrost samples. With additional funding from his Canada Research Chair in Molecular Studies of Antibiotics, Wright and his team are applying this fundamental information in the development of innovative strategies to identify new drugs and preserve the activities of existing ones.

Other members of the IIDR have achieved similar success, including Eric Brown, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, who was awarded a Canadian Institutes for Health Research Foundation Grant valued at $2.8 million over seven years to focus on understanding survival strategies of bacteria.

Marie Elliot, a professor of biology, was awarded a prestigious Discovery Accelerator Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to focus on Streptomyces — a soil-dwelling bacterium, which produces the majority of the world's antibiotics.

Also, a group of international researchers, led by Nathan Magarvey, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, received $1.5 million from the Canadian government to discover and develop natural antibiotics for treating drug-resistant bacteria.

The importance of McMaster's work in this area was recognized this year when Wright, Brown and Lori Burrows, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, were among the featured speakers at the 2015 Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology — an annual meeting attended by an international consortium of leading experts on antibiotic resistance.

The Keystone Symposia offered attendees an essential forum to discuss the critical issue of resistance, Burrows says. "It's the best way to exchange ideas, and it's where new collaborations are born."

Adds Wright: "The world is finally waking up to the worst public health threat of our times. The antibiotics that we have come to take for granted are quickly losing their power to stop deadly diseases and infections. The end of antibiotics is right on our doorstep, and everyone is at risk."