Crowd-funding and Big Data fight superbugs

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Most common in hospital settings, there has been a worrying increase in the number of superbug infections in healthy people with no previous hospital exposure. Now scientists want to use 'Big Data' in their quest to tackle infections such as MRSA.

Researchers from the University of Bath and Emory University (USA) are hoping that online crowd-funding can help in efforts to develop a new way to identify and treat toxic superbugs, such as MRSA.

Superbugs pose a major problem for public health officials around the world. According to the World Health Organisation in 2011 6.7 million people died from infectious diseases, making them the second biggest killer behind heart disease, at 7 million.

Scientists at Bath and Emory want to use the latest sequencing technologies to build a much clearer picture of how these bacteria cause disease. By using ‘Big Data’ they plan to create an online database that would enable doctors to make quicker and better decisions about treating such infections.

The infections are caused by micro-organisms that have developed resistance to a range of antibiotics making them incredibly difficult to treat. They are most common in hospital settings, affecting severely ill people. However, there has been a worrying increase in the number of cases of infections among healthy people with no previous hospital exposure.

Meticillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) causes a range of problems, from abscesses on the skin, to much more significant problems, especially when it gets into deeper tissue. In the lungs, MRSA can cause pneumonia which in itself can be deadly.

Once in the blood stream, MRSA mortality rates rise up to 40% when the disease can also attack heart tissue causing endocarditis. Recent reports in the USA suggested that infections caused by MRSA caused more deaths than HIV/AIDS.

Current treatments generally involve the prescription of a cocktail of antibiotics, some of which kill the bacteria and others shut off their release of toxins. This approach has led many, including the UK’s Chief Medical Officer this March, to highlight concerns about the ‘ticking time bomb’ of antibiotic resistance.

Now Dr Tim Read and Dr Ruth Massey, currently working together as a result of the Raymond Schinazi International Exchange Programme, are drawing on their collective expertise in sequencing genomes to analyse the toxicity of different bacteria and to predict their antibiotic resistance.

Commenting on the project, Schinazi Fellow and creator of the genome database Staphopia, Dr Read said: “MRSA inflicts a terrible burden on society, not only in terms of thousands of deaths directly attributable to the disease but also in the reduction of quality of life suffered by those that survive the infection.  We need to stop MRSA infections using every tool available.  This project combines lab science, “big data” type analysis to improve our ability to give effective treatment.”

Dr Massey from our Department of Biology & Biochemistry explained: “We envisage that genome sequencing will become the primary means of diagnosis in clinics. What is missing is the tools and understanding to translate this genetic information into clinically useful information. In time, this project will allow doctors to upload a genetic sequence online to find out instantly whether the strain they are dealing with is highly toxic or not, and how it will respond to antibiotics.

“You can sequence the genome of a bacterium in a matter of hours and we already have a large collection of clinical strains to analyse. However one of the limitations we currently face currently is manpower in inputting the genomic data.  So using the site indiegogo we’re hoping raise £10,000 (c. $15,000) to provide a fund for a student to work for a year developing this project further.”

Commenting on the opportunity this would present for a student, Dr Massey added: “A student would end up with a multi-disciplinary set of skills which could be applied well beyond this project.”

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