health & science

Could New Zealand fungi hold the key to fighting superbugs?

Fungi native to New Zealand may hold answers in the fight against the antibiotic resistance crisis - set to become one of the biggest public health threats of the modern world.

Today marks the launch of Cure Kids’ month-long ‘Fight Against Superbugs’ crowdfunding campaign, which is looking to raise $250,000 to help University of Auckland scientists develop new antibiotics to fight drug-resistant infections.

Researchers will study 1000 fungi native to New Zealand and the Pacific, held in a collection by Landcare Research, in order to identify pathogen-fighting properties. Early progress has already revealed some fungi have the ability to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria, and if successful, could lead to groundbreaking medical discoveries. 

Worldwide, the crisis is already being felt, with about 700,000 people dying from drug-resistant infections every year, a number forecast to jump to 10 million a year by 2050.

And New Zealand has one of the highest rates of infectious diseases - and antibiotic use - in the developed world.

Auckland mother Kyla Kitching knows just how shockingly quickly an infection like this can take hold, and how important effective antibiotics are.

Her daughter Addison was 4 years old when she developed mild flu-like symptoms. After a couple of trips to the doctor and the emergence of an unusual bruise, doctors told the family the youngster had contracted Staphylococcus aureus (SA) - a common bacteria which, if left untreated, can cause infection and even death.

“Within the space of a few days she went from a normal healthy child to fighting for her life,” Kitching says.

“It’s astounding that something you carry on your skin can cause such havoc in your bloodstream.”

The infection - the source of which is still unknown - got into her bloodstream, drastically lowering her platelets and white cell counts and putting her at high risk of heart failure. She endured a spate of surgeries, including to her lungs and her shoulders, and blood transfusions.

Luckily, the antibiotics she was treated with worked, saving her life. But Kitching is quick to acknowledge that’s not always the case.

“We consider her one of the lucky ones.”

Addison, now 9, has some permanent damage to her heart and her tricuspid valve has a leak which requires continuous monitoring. But the “little trooper’s” family is grateful, and conscious of the need for new antibiotics as infection resistance evolves.

Addison could easily have died had the strain of SA she contracted not responded to antibiotics. Photo: Supplied

“To think that those antibiotics might not have worked for us … it would be a totally different story.

“As time goes on, antibiotics are going to become less and less effective and we’re just not creating them quickly enough.”

Microbiologist and lead researcher on the project, Dr Siouxsie Wiles, says New Zealand’s alarmingly high rate of infectious disease and corresponding antibiotic use has varied causes.

One of those relates closely to poverty levels and substandard housing, conditions which have helped diseases like rheumatic fever - and organisms like SA - thrive.

Other causes include high rates of sexually transmitted disease, and environmental factors like the intensification of dairy and the type of construction of waterways, she says.

While resistance to antibiotics has become dire, Wiles is hopeful the fungi will offer some solutions. As diverse as our wide range of native birds and plants, New Zealand’s fungi is bound to contain something scientists can use.

The collection of more than 10,000 types of fungi dates back to the 1950s, and was started by an enthusiast. The collection has been transferred to Landcare Research, where 1000 fungi will form the basis of the study. Most of the samples have never been researched against the bacteria the study is focusing on.

Wiles and her team have already screened 300 of the 10,000 fungi, and found some with the power to kill M. tuberculosis and RMSA - the drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus.

A technique whereby the fungi has been developed to glow when it reacts with bacteria will help scientists know which have pathogen-fighting properties.

Given the project has been “limping along on the smell of an oily rag,” the Cure Kids’ campaign is crucial in getting the research in motion, Wiles says.

“The later we start, the more people are going to die.”

Cure Kids is appealing to the public to help them raise the $250,000, offering rewards to donors based on the amounts they give.

“New Zealand may be a small nation, but our native fungi and our unique biodiversity could provide an answer to this global problem,” says Cure Kids Research Director Tim Edmond. “If we don’t act now and discover new medicines, it is predicted that within a generation, antibiotic resistance will overtake cancer as the leading cause of premature death worldwide.”

Donations can be made here.

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