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Tackling Antimicrobial Resistance with Trinity’s Prendergast Challenge-Based Multi-disciplinary Project Awards

Dr Julie Renwick of the Resist-AMR research group describes their successful grant application which will confront the societal and scientific challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

The prestigious Prendergast Challenge-Based Multi-disciplinary Project Awards were made possible through the generous philanthropic support of the Provost’s Council, a network of leading Trinity alumni and supporters who act as advisors to the Trinity College Dublin. Donations were made in honour of the Provostship of Professor Patrick Prendergast. The Resist-AMR team was one of two winners, and this grant will allow the recruitment of PhD students to work on interlinked projects which address a considerable global challenge.

Antimicrobials are critical resources for human, animal and plant health. With emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and lack of new antimicrobials, we face an unprecedented global environmental, food security and human health threat. Applying a multidisciplinary approach, the successful Resist-AMR team, including four PhD projects and expertise from plant scientists, clinical and environmental microbiologists, geneticists, antimicrobial resistance specialists, computer scientists/statisticians, bioengineers and sociologists, will study environmental and human ‘resistomes’ from agricultural and clinical settings, and will analyse agricultural stakeholders’ practices and policies to identify institutional reform implications. The lead investigators on the project include Professor Trevor Hodkinson (Natural Sciences), Dr Julie Renwick (Medicine), Dr Marta Martins (Microbiology and Genetics), and Dr Sinead Corr (Microbiology and Genetics).

As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical Microbiology, Dr Julie Renwick’s research lab is based in the Trinity Centre for Health Science in Tallaght University Hospital. Her research focuses on characterising the diverse community of microorganisms in the airways of people with chronic lung diseases, such as cystic fibrosis (CF), and understanding how these microbial communities or the ‘microbiome’ impacts disease progression. CF is a multisystem disease, principally manifesting in the lungs and up to 95% of morbidity and mortality occurs due to chronic airway infections. CF airway infections were traditionally thought to be caused by single microorganisms however, with the advent of advanced sequencing technologies, researchers now understand that these infections are polymicrobial. Dr Renwick’s group have employed next generation sequencing technologies to thoroughly characterise the CF airway microbiome and have made links with disease outcomes such as lung function. Dr Renwick explains:

We are exploring the resistome, or collective pool of resistance genes, in the CF airway microbiome and how this correlates to current AMR testing methods. I am particularly interested in how microbe-microbe interactions within the microbiome may alter pathogen virulence and antimicrobial resistance, subsequently influencing CF disease progression.

AMR costs the EU about €1.5 billion in healthcare and productivity losses per year. Left untackled, AMR is predicted to cause an 11% decrease in livestock production annually by 2050. One of the largest users of antibiotics is the agricultural industry, consuming estimates of up to 240,000 tonnes per annum, and predicted to rise by 67% by 2030. RESIST-AMR will survey the regulators and stakeholders to assess decision making around use of antimicrobials in farm practices. The team will engage with stakeholders and policy makers to determine the contribution of agricultural practices in Ireland to this global threat. Scientific research will inform environmental policy, including guidelines on use of antimicrobials in Irish farming. It will impact on agricultural production via new approaches to crop treatment (replacing pesticides and fertilizers with ecological alternatives). AMR causes many deaths each year, and the risks posed by AMR are unprecedented, as Dr Renwick explains:

AMR causes the death of 33,000 Europeans each year and is predicted to cause >10 million deaths annually by 2050. Without the development of new antimicrobials and therapeutic approaches, the future of modern medicine is under threat. This project will increase knowledge of how resistance is transferred in microbial communities and uncover novel resistance mechanisms and novel therapeutic targets. We will develop novel models for studying the microbiome in vitro furthering the scientific impact of this work.

As well as developing the next generation of researchers equipped with the skills to tackle the challenge, this research project aims to educate the public about AMR and its implications. AMR is both a societal and scientific challenge, and solutions to this immense challenge will only emerge from scientifically informed policy decisions. Among the societal benefits are improved health and a more sustainable environment. To recognise the fact that AMR is particularly relevant to the older population, the group will collaborate with Professor Rose-Ann Kenny of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at TCD. In addition to TILDA, the Resist-AMR team will collaborate with Dr Kaye Burgess (Food Research Centre, Teagasc), Dr Fiona Brennan (Soil and Environmental Research Group, Teagasc), Dr Michael Monaghan (School of Engineering), Dr Elaine Moriarty (School of Social Sciences and Philosophy), and Professor Simon Wilson, School of Computer Science and Statistics.

Read more about the Prendergast Challenge-based Multi-disciplinary Project Award winners here