Fighting superbugs with microscopic tracks

Tuesday, 11 July, 2017


University of Technology Sydney scientist and Associate Professor Cynthia Whitchurch has become the first female scientist to win the David Syme Research Prize in over 30 years.

Whitchurch has been jointly awarded the David Syme Research Prize for the best original research in biology, physics, chemistry or geology produced in Australia during the preceding two years.

The other awardee is UTS physicist Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich for his discovery of new sources of photons for quantum technologies.

Whitchurch discovered that dangerous bacteria in biofilms follow each other like ants, or 4WD drivers following tracks in the sand. Then she showed she could create microscopic tracks on medical devices to limit the spread of the bacteria that cause infection. Based on her work, new types of catheters are being developed that are less likely to become infected.

As a microbiologist in UTS’s ithree institute, Whitchurch has spent her career studying how bacteria coordinate their behaviour and activities to form biofilms so that she might discover new ways to treat infection and reduce antibiotic use.

Biofilms give bacteria extra protection from antibiotics and grow on implanted medical devices such as catheters. Whitchurch discovered that bacteria organise themselves using a process called stigmergy.

“Imagine a 4WD creating tracks across the sand dunes — there’s a natural tendency to follow that path. That’s stigmergy,” she said. It’s common in nature, for example in ants and zebras.

The bacterium that Whitchurch focuses on is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It is a superbug and number two on the World Health Organization’s ‘critical’ priority list of pathogens requiring urgent development of new antibiotics. Whitchurch tested whether small furrows in silicone can inhibit biofilm expansion and confirmed that they did. Her team’s findings have resulted in an industry partnership with a Sydney-based catheter manufacturer. The potential benefit to hospital patients and aged-care clients is significant because nearly 25% of hospital patients require catheters. The second part of Whitchurch’s original work is around a related phenomenon she terms ‘explosive cell lysis’, where bacteria release ‘public goods’ back into the biofilm where they are used by other members of the community.

Whitchurch is one of a handful of women to receive the award since its inception in 1906. The last was Professor Suzanne Cory, immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Sciences (1982). The prize was established in 1904 by a bequest from the publisher of The Age. It is administered by The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science.

The other awardee, Igor Aharonovich, is the deputy director of the Institute of Biomedical Devices (IBMD) at UTS. His research underpins the development of quantum computing based on photonics. He led his team in the discovery of new sources of single photons — including gallium nitride and zinc oxide — that could help quantum technologies transition from a laboratory to a commercial setting in the form of ultrasensitive sensors and key components for secured communications.

Aharonovich has also made breakthroughs in the broader field of physical sciences by engineering quantum emitters in an atomically thin material (2D material) — hexagonal boron nitride.

“This award recognises the extraordinary contributions Cynthia and Igor have made in their fields. Through their respective research, they have expanded our understanding of antibiotic resistance and made significant strides towards realising quantum technologies,” said Professor Glenn Wightwick, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at UTS.

“These achievements reflect the quality of research being undertaken at UTS and our focus on delivering outcomes that benefit society.”

“I am delighted with the outcome of this year’s David Syme Research Prize, particularly as it recognises our faculty’s active role in promoting research excellence and the achievements of women in STEM,” said Professor Karen Day, Dean of Science at The University of Melbourne. “As Dean of Science, I am also pleased to celebrate the research of one of our alumni, Associate Professor Aharonovich.”

Image caption: Cynthia Whitchurch in her lab. Image credit: UTS.

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