FS Alumna Discovers Potential Cure for Superbugs

Studying predominately science subjects at high school, Shu Jie Lam (Feb Main 2008) found it difficult to express her own opinions. A problem that continued until she came to Trinity in 2008. Almost a decade later, Shu has discovered a cure that could potentially be a game changer in the fight against superbugs.

Following in her older sister’s footsteps (Xin Jie Lam, Feb Main 2004), Shu started studying at the Foundation Studies (FS) school after completing high school in Johor, southern Malaysia.

‘I came here and at first I was worried, because especially with literature and History of Ideas we had to do assignments that are essay based, we had to read literature and those were things I had never ever done before,’ says Shu.

But to Shu’s surprise these actually ended up being some of her favourite subjects and ones she excelled in. She enjoyed the process of learning about different historical ideas and the fact that there is not always a clear right or wrong answer.

Despite eventually deciding to study a degree related to science, the breadth of subjects, particularly the social science subjects on offer at Trinity, greatly increased Shu’s self-confidence.

‘I still ended up doing a scientific degree in chemical engineering, [but] those subjects really helped me in becoming braver and more confident in voicing my opinions.’

Superbugs and Shu’s Research

After completing a degree in chemical and bio-molecular engineering at the University of Melbourne, Shu chose to undertake a PhD in Engineering, but focusing on the interface between engineering and microbiology.

‘I thought I would be an engineer and then half way through I did summer research in this lab, we were making polymers and we were trying to potentially use them for some biological applications.’

‘I signed up for a PhD, but my project wasn’t defined, so I thought I was just going to be a chemist and at that time someone got interested in our project, that was at the start of my PhD in 2013.’

Shu’s PhD research, focusing on superbugs was recently published in Nature Microbiology, a prestigious international microbiology journal.

Superbug is a laymen’s term for a group of bacteria that has developed resistance against currently available antibiotics. In other words, as Shu explains, ‘when you get a superbug infection and you try to treat it with penicillin or some sort of amoxicillin antibiotic, you won’t be cured.’

This has been a known problem to scientists for decades. It is estimated that superbugs resistant to antimicrobials currently account for 700,000 deaths each year. In July 2014, David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, commissioned a Review on Antimicrobial Research (AMR), which highlighted the gravity of the superbug problem and the potential for this epidemic to spiral out of control. In addition, modelling up to 2050, by Rand Europe and auditors KPMG, suggests 10 million people could die each year from superbug infections, the equivalent of one every three seconds.

Using polymers, which Shu describes as being ‘like big molecules’, Shu and her research team believe they might have come up with a solution to fighting these bugs.

The research team led by Shu conducted trials on mice to test the effectiveness of their polymer in fighting superbugs. Their trial compared a control group treated with a regular antibiotic found in clinics against a different group of mice treated with their polymer.

Out of the mice treated with a common antibiotic used in a clinic, half the infected mice died, the equivalent to what would happen without any treatment.

‘We then treated another group of identical mice with our polymer. We actually managed to get 100% survival. That is an indication it works, but obviously we need more studies to eventually put this drug into clinical trials,’ Shu explained.

Shu is currently finishing her PhD, while continuing to explore more opportunities to further her research.

Links to Other Arti

01 Jan 2016
Category: Foundation Studies