The Future Of: Disease & Antimicrobial Resistance

Featuring Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Featuring Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen from UOW's School of Chemistry is an ARC Laureate Fellow and the Director of Molecular Horizons- UOW’s new $80 million research facility, dedicated to making this happen – illuminating how life works at a molecular level and solving some of the biggest health challenges facing the world.

What are you researching or working on in 2018?

Our research group operates at the interface of physics, biology and chemistry. We develop new types of microscopes to see how biological molecules behave inside cells and how life’s processes work at the most fundamental level. This is important, because understanding a biological process at the molecular level is critical for understanding disease.

The project currently going on in the lab that I get most excited about is also the one that concerns me most… We’re interested in understanding the basic mechanisms of how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics; essentially how they become superbugs. This antimicrobial resistance is rapidly becoming one of society’s major health challenges, with simple surgical procedures potentially becoming life-or-death situations. By now, we know that overuse of antibiotics is creating conditions for bacteria to become resistant, but we don’t understand yet what the molecular processes exactly are.

In our lab, we’ve recently developed technology that allows us to film how bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics within several hours of them being exposed to the drug! We’re now working towards visualisation of the process with such detail that we can see which proteins inside the bacteria are responsible for this crazy-fast evolution. Understanding which bacterial proteins are involved will allow us to start thinking about new antibiotics that might be effective for much longer, without the emergence of resistant bacteria.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the most innovative or exciting things emerging over the next few years?

As a physicist working on biological systems, I’m very much interested in physical tools to study life. We’re currently witnessing a tremendous acceleration in the development of new methods to visualise life at the molecular level. New types of electron microscopes allow us to see how proteins are shaped down to the level of individual atoms and novel optical imaging techniques can make movies of molecules moving around inside cells with unprecedented detail. This revolution in imaging methods hasn’t finished yet. I’m expecting technology to be developed that will combine the electron microscopy with the optical imaging and that will allow us to truly create a window into the molecular world inside living cells. Pretty cool stuff!

Here at UOW, we’re capitalising on those developments with the new Molecular Horizons initiative. Bringing our strong molecular life sciences research together with new imaging methodology, we’re making the next step in understanding and tackling disease. Construction of the Molecular Horizons building has just started and new microscopes and research staff to run them have started to arrive on campus. I’m super excited about what the next few years are going to bring in this area at UOW – I think we’ll see a lot of interesting interactions between physicists, chemists, biologists, and clinicians that will hopefully lead to real-world applications in the form of therapies and drugs.

In regards to your field of study or expertise what are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

As mentioned above, I’m personally very worried about the problem of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotics have saved the lives of 100s of millions of people over the last century. Because of bacteria rapidly becoming resistant, these live-saving drugs will stop saving lives very soon if we don’t act. This is a really complicated problem that likely isn’t going to be solved with one silver bullet. We’ll need to develop new and better antibiotics, develop diagnostics that can identify infections more rapidly, limit the use of antibiotics in agriculture, and critically asses how we use antibiotics in the community and the clinic. This requires collaboration between many stakeholders: researchers (from across disciplines), health care professionals, policy makers and many, many more. That’s a process that needs to happen and that’s one where UOW is playing a role.

There’s an important role for the reader here: be critical about your own use of antibiotics. They’re important drugs that are absolutely necessary in a lot of cases. But they’re also ineffective in many other cases, for example with viral infections such as the common cold. Every time we’re using antibiotics, we contribute to the problem of antimicrobial resistance. Listen to your GP’s advice on when to take them and when not!

Where do you believe major opportunities lie for people thinking about future career options?

I’m a firm believer in the power of interdisciplinary research. Combining the different disciplines allows you to bring together approaches and solutions that accelerate progress. I run into a lot of students who are interested in the sciences coming from high school but feel forced to pick one particular one when they start university. There should be pathways for them to combine the sciences and get all-round training. We’re doing that here at UOW with a number of courses that cross the traditional boundaries of disciplines. Looking at the important developments in research and development and how these are often the results of the integration of disciplines, I think that those students will be strongly positioned to become future leaders in our innovation economy.

In regards to your field of study or expertise, what is the best piece of advice you could offer to our readers?

Science is not scary! If you’re not already doing so, read and hear about the exciting things that are happening in the world of scientific research. Whether it’s popular science shows on TV, the newspaper’s science section, or scientific content on social media, there’s lots of really accessible and exciting popular science info out there. You’ll love it!

For more from Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen you can visit his UOW Scholars profile

You can also watch his UOW Alumni Knowledge Series Lecture "Fighting disease, one molecule at a time"

For more information about Molecular Horizons: a centre for Molecular and Life Sciences take a look here