Greg Cook

The use of antibiotics to treat animal and human disease is changing.

The use of antibiotics to treat animal and human disease is changing, and Otago Medical Research Foundation funding is helping..

Inappropriate and overuse of antibiotics coupled with ever-growing antimicrobial resistance are forcing a global rethink of the drug's use and driving development for new products.

A biomedical human programme is looking at new drugs for diseases, and New Zealand researchers are also looking for new ways to treat infectious diseases in animals.

Antibiotics currently used on animals were originally developed for human use, without understanding how they worked in animals and what impact that would have on human use. Changing attitudes to antibiotics that come from treated animals into the food chain, in New Zealand and overseas, are putting pressure on farmers and the drug industry to develop more effective and highly targeted animal-specific products, as well as new management processes.

The challenge for Professor Greg Cook and his microbiology and immunology team at the University of Otago is navigating the ethical and regulatory pathways to advance novel molecules that target bacterial pathogens causing disease into pre-clinical development.  They have partnered with local and international companies to drive this.

One project is a collaboration with researchers in China to screen new compounds that have the potential to be developed into drugs that kill the tuberculosis causing bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Traditionally, drug development has been based on the fact that the drug works, without necessarily understanding what is happening and why.  Greg's PhD student Zoe Williams has been documenting the underlying mechanisms that make drug candidate compound (TB47) effective against Tb disease, and has found it shows good activity against all drug-susceptible and drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains. Importantly, the new drug works in synergy with current Tb drugs in animal models.

Greg said the Foundation's role in their work has been significant. "Firstly, it is an enabler that starts off fundamental research to attract the attention of significant external funders and collaborators – we couldn't do without it.  But also, the work engine for this type of research are the postgraduate students, so Foundation funding for student research support has been critical to encourage new students into science careers.  The students we're producing here are world class, and other centres are envious of the support they get from the Foundation and the University."

"Our research is hugely important to the industry – we are part of this global shift in breaking the link between human and animal antimicrobial use. It's a long-term goal, but if we can develop new narrow spectrum therapeutics for animal-only use it will be a huge achievement and a paradigm shift for animal health and farming," Professor Cook said.

"This field of research an exciting place to be."