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Explorer Grant gives scientist ammo in ‘arms race’

Explorer Grant gives scientist ammo in ‘arms race’ with infectious microbes

Science communications whizz and microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles has been awarded an Explorer Grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to take the fight to an ever-changing foe: infectious microbes.

“We are locked in an arms race with a diverse army of opponents who can evolve much faster than we can,” says Dr Wiles, head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Group at the University of Auckland.

“These microbes place a huge burden on the New Zealand health system. A staggering one in four overnight hospital admissions are infection-related.”

Dr Wiles was awarded the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communication Award in 2012 and the Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication prize last year. She is also a recipient of the HRC’s prestigious Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship.

As part of the Explorer Grant, Dr Wiles and her team will investigate how infectious microbes adapt to live and cause disease in their hosts and what factors influence this arms race. To do this, they will use a bacterium that infects laboratory mice using the same ‘modus operandi’ as life-threatening human pathogens.

“The knowledge gained from this study will allow the evolution of infectious microbes to be anticipated and should highlight new ‘chinks’ in our opponents’ armour,” says Dr Wiles.

Dr Wiles is one of three researchers to receive a 2014 Explorer Grant from the HRC. These grants are intended to advance ideas considered to be transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact.

Professor Gregory Cook from the University of Otago, Dunedin, has been awarded an Explorer Grant to develop novel antibiotics that aim to transform the way we treat bacterial infections and combat multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released its first global report on antibiotic resistance, revealing it as a serious, worldwide threat to public health1.

In contrast to current antibiotic targets such as the cell wall, protein and DNA synthesis, Professor Cook’s team have developed new antibiotics that target the part of all living cells that produce energy. These new antibiotics or ‘metabiotics’, so-called because they target a metabolic process, will help the medical community keep pace with the growing problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Professor John Reynolds, also from the University of Otago, Dunedin, will use his Explorer Grant to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new drug delivery system that he and his team have designed for restoring brain function in patients with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

Go to to read lay summaries of each researchers’ project.

1 See for the WHO report.


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