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Delivering antibiotic solutions for a new world

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As a result of the cutting-edge work of researcher and Campus Travel Grant recipient, Dr Laura McCaughey - the way we all think about antibiotics may change forever.

Most of us go about our day to day lives without ever giving a thought to how the antibiotics we turn to in times of sickness, ever came into existence. However Dr Laura McCaughey is at the cutting edge of new antibiotic research and discovery in Australia. 

Based at the ithree institute (infection, immunology and innovation) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), she is conducting this potentially life-saving work in collaboration with the Biochemistry department at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Since first falling in love with biology and disease research, Laura has set her sights on working to improve human health – and her dedication has certainly been rewarded. In addition to being the successful academic applicant for the 2016 Campus Travel Grant, Laura has also been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades during her career. 

In 2014 Laura was awarded a four year Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which has enabled her to establish international collaborations between UTS and the University of Oxford. The main focus of Laura’s research is the identification of new antibiotics, understanding how bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and how to identify novel approaches to antibiotic development to overcome this problem. 

Having stumbled across a banner promoting the Campus Travel Grant, while booking a trip to a bio-conference, Laura made the fateful decision to enter a submission. Having successfully been awarded the grant Laura will use it to travel to the UK in 2017 to utilise the technology available at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute – the world’s leading research institute for DNA sequencing.

TraDIS is a DNA sequencing technique recently developed at the Sanger Institute, which has the potential to accelerate and diversify Laura’s research in ways not possible with other techniques. TraDIS (Transposon Directed Insertion site Sequencing) is a new technique only available at a handful of institutes worldwide. However Laura has secured the support of the Sanger Institute to collaborate on her project, an opportunity not available to many early career researchers. 

By using TraDIS Laura hopes to learn more about the antibiotic she has discovered, with the outcomes from this research hopefully providing new knowledge that can be exploited for future antibiotic development. “I know the antibiotic I am studying kills a particular very infectious and very dangerous bacteria – but I don’t know how,” explained Laura. “Using TraDIS I will be able to extract and analyse data to help understand the complete mechanism of this antibiotic and how it interacts with bacteria.”

To take her research to the next level, Laura needs a thorough understanding of the mechanisms this new class of antibiotics use to enter the bacterial cells, evade bacterial defences and ultimately kill the bacteria. “It is only by clearly understanding all three processes that we can fully appreciate how the antibiotics work,” said Laura. According to Laura, this project has the potential to impact not only the fields of microbiology and drug development, but also the broader field of public health. This is a field of exceptional importance and urgency, due to the current global antibiotic resistance crisis that threatens the future of modern medicine. The end goal for Laura is to verify her data with more testing and ultimately to commercialise this new antibiotic. However she is fully aware that it typically takes 10 to 15 years from initial research to get a new pharmaceutical to market – at an average overall cost of $1 billion.

So how do researchers like Laura stay motivated when working on projects which can take so many years to come to fruition? According to Laura, “you only choose a career in science because you genuinely love it! But at the same time it is a love/hate relationship. It’s a very long haul, but when you see results and make a breakthrough – it’s the best feeling in the world!”

In the meantime, Laura is busy following her passion and her advocacy work educating the public about the threat presented by antibiotic resistance - through seminars, library talks and writing articles on the subject. “The message I want to get out is why we should all care about antibiotic resistance in the community,” said Laura.

Laura’s motivation and personal life philosophy is to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities. After reading the book Yes Man by Danny Wallace - where the author spends a year saying "Yes" to any offers that came his way - Laura decided to put this theory in to practice. As a result, Laura has taken up opportunities to get involved in public education and she said ‘yes’ to applying for this travel grant.

In total, Laura will spend between two to three weeks in the UK during September 2017 - at the Sanger Institute and also attending a bio-medical conference in Liverpool.

As part of the 2016 Travel Grant Series for academics Dr Laura McCaughey receives $4,000 worth of airfares and $1,000 for accommodation, transportation or tours.

 

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