Tackling antibiotic resistance

It may not make headlines, but chronic bacterial sinus infection is a big problem. Affecting an estimated 12 per cent of people worldwide, its symptoms can be severely debilitating—even fatal—and increasingly antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are rendering traditional treatments ineffective.

Fortunately, a groundbreaking University of Adelaide research program is providing real hope that sufferers will soon breathe easier.

"We’re approaching a superbug ‘trainwreck’—with only a few new antibiotics in development—and we felt it was high time alternative treatments received close attention."Professor Wormald

Conducted by the University’s Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery Group, the extensive program combines investigations into the condition’s causes with three exciting new treatment directions: a range of novel topical therapies; mucosal microbiome transplants; and bacteriophages, bacteria’s natural viral predator.

Program leader Professor Peter-John Wormald says the group’s advances are very timely. “Patient surveys show chronic sinusitis is even harder to live with than rheumatoid arthritis and congestive cardiac failure,” he says.

“Couple that with the fact we’re approaching a superbug ‘trainwreck’—with only a few new antibiotics in development—and we felt it was high time alternative treatments received close attention.”

In the area of topical therapies, the team has developed a unique combination gel targeting bacteria’s food pathways. “Our early results show the gel is effective in 80 to 90 per cent of cases,” says Associate Professor Sarah Vreugde, who heads the group’s lab-based research. “Plus, it has unique wound-healing properties.”

Clinical trials are underway, and the team is also developing a topical colloidal silver treatment, which shows similarly promising signs.

Investigations into microbiome transplants are likewise progressing. “We’re currently confirming which sinus bacteria promote health and which propagate disease, by analysing over 700 healthy and unhealthy samples from around the world” says project lead Associate Professor Alkis Psaltis.

Peter John Wormald

“Once we know this, we’re hopeful of transplanting healthy mucus into a diseased patient and reversing their condition. We did a world-first human trial in 2017 that showed promising results, even without knowing the ideal bacterial combination.”

According to Associate Professor Vreugde, bacteriophage treatments show equal potential. “Phages are wonders,” she says. “Each type destroys just one form of bacteria and leaves others unharmed.”

The team has completed the first Western study treating chronic sinusitis patients with bacteriophages, with outstanding results. This was particularly so when phages were used in combination with certain medications, which stopped the bacteria developing phage resistance.

Given the group’s success, Professor Wormald is confident they’re approaching their ultimate goal—eliminating chronic sinusitis’s global impact.

“It’s very exciting. We’re helping to improve over 900 million people’s lives.”

Learn more about Professor Wormald