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How research at Queen’s is addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance

How research at Queen’s is addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is one of the fastest growing threats to global health. Currently, in Canada, one in four infections are resistant to the drugs that are generally used to treat them; this can limit the ability not only to treat simple infections, but to carry out important medical treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. Resistant microbes contribute to over 700,000 deaths a year worldwide. If left unaddressed this number is expected to increase exponentially in the coming decades.  

Dr. Christopher Lohans is raising alarm bells on this issue. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, his research is focused on the beta-lactam antibiotics, a group of frequently prescribed antibiotics which includes penicillin. Through his work, he is trying to better understand the mechanisms by which bacteria can resist these antibiotics and use that information to develop new methods to treat them. 

“Bacteria have developed resistance mechanisms against all of the antibiotics that are available for clinical use,” explains Dr. Lohans. “Beta-lactam antibiotics are widely used when treating bacterial infections and bacterial production of beta-lactamase enzymes, which are able to degrade these antibiotics, is one of the biggest contributors to antibiotic resistance. These enzymes greatly impact the ability of healthcare providers’ to treat their patients, and our aim is to better understand how they work, how we can detect them and how we might be able to overcome them.” 

Dr. Lohans is hopeful that the research that is being done on antibiotic resistance at Queen’s will promote the development of new antibiotics which are less susceptible to these resistance mechanisms. 

“If we can characterize how these resistance mechanisms work, this may be able to help inform the development of new antibiotics which can delay the onset of antibiotic resistance,” says Dr. Lohans. “We also aim to develop new approaches to diagnosis, allowing for rapid detection of bacteria that are resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics. This would give clinicians a better understanding of the best antibiotic to prescribe for a particular infection.” 

Using antibiotics when they are not necessary or using the wrong type of antibiotic does not benefit the patient and can accelerate the development of resistance. As such, antibiotic stewardship - preventing misuse of antibiotics by improving how they are prescribed by healthcare providers – is another important mechanism to reduce the burden of antibiotic resistance.  

“It's essential that we limit the spread of antibiotic resistance in order to protect our current antibiotics as well as those that are still in the antibiotic development pipeline,” says Dr. Lohans. “Moving forward, the concept of antibiotic stewardship is critical in helping to ensure that antibiotics are only prescribed when they are necessary and that the most appropriate antibiotic is chosen when treating a bacterial infection.” 

Dr. Lohans has assisted in developing a new lab course, MICR 290: Antibiotic Resistance Lab, that focuses specifically on antibiotic resistance. This unique course, taught by Dr. Lohans, is being offered for the first time during the Fall 2020 semester at Queen’s. It introduces students to background and theory related to antibiotic resistance and facilitates the development of important lab skills that could be used for its study.  

Dr. Lohans hopes that, in addition to the ongoing work of the Queen’s research community, this course will help spread awareness of the threat that antibiotic resistance poses to the global health. It may even foster a new generation of researchers to contribute to addressing this problem.

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