Otago research could be life-saver

The University of Otago's Dr Brian Monk shows the structure of a cell membrane protein, which is a target for anti-fungal drugs. Photo by Craig Baxter.
The University of Otago's Dr Brian Monk shows the structure of a cell membrane protein, which is a target for anti-fungal drugs. Photo by Craig Baxter.

A University of Otago research breakthrough could lead to the creation of new ''life-saving'' anti-fungal drugs.

The Sir John Walsh Research Institute research, led by Dr Brian Monk, and working with colleagues at the University of California San Francisco, discovered the structure of a key cell membrane protein, which allows fungus to grow.

Knowing the structure of the protein, which was also involved in growing resistance to anti-fungal drugs worldwide, could result in ''better targeted'' drugs that ''hopefully give the organism no chance of surviving''.

This was significant as 1.4 million people died annually due to fungal infections made worse by co-infections with tuberculosis and Aids or by medically induced immune deficiency.

Fungal infections such as thrush also affected premature babies, the elderly, females of reproductive age, individuals with dry mouth and terminal cancer patients, Dr Monk said.

''This is a huge area that really needs to be worked on, because the drugs we have are not particularly effective.

''If you get a systemic fungal infection, that's one that spreads throughout your body and gets to your organs, your chances of surviving it are around about 50% or 60%.''

Having drugs that more effectively targeted the fungal protein molecule also meant it could take longer for organisms to develop resistance.

Dr Monk's research team was now searching for drugs to take advantage of the discovery.

''What we would like to have is really cheap simple drugs that will have a long life.

''That is rather than having resistance occur after a few years, maybe they might last 50 or 100 years,'' he said.

Dr Monk said his research team's discovery paralleled a recent achievement by Prof Greg Cook's team in Otago's department of microbiology and immunology.

Prof Cook and his colleagues published the structure of a membrane protein essential for bacteria to generate energy, a finding which opened the way to developing new classes of antimicrobial drugs.

The importance of both discoveries was highlighted by the fact less than 0.5% of protein structures so far determined worldwide were for membrane proteins.

Anti-dreamers, pro-innovators

On the one hand there is "free money" for grandiose schemes that will put Dunedin on the map, make us prosperous and wipe out unemployment, all we have to do is bend the rules and somewhere along the line, whispered very quietly till the project is approved, pay out of extra rates for extra infrastructure, and put up with existing businesses being undermined. Free money, very popular with dreamers who get terribly crabby with people who examine the proposed buckets of gold and dare to say that under gold paint they are blocks of compressed sardine cans.

At the same time, quietly getting on with their work, are the people who should be in headlines regularly to remind us of the alternative to Great Free Saviours of the Economy, because they really are putting Dunedin on the map, really are making major contributions to NZ and the world.

How about these ones. "The Sir John Walsh Research Institute research, led by Dr Brian Monk, and working with colleagues at the University of California San Francisco, discovered the structure of a key cell membrane protein, which allows fungus to grow." and "Prof Greg Cook's team in Otago's department of microbiology and immunology" who "published the structure of a membrane protein essential for bacteria to generate energy, a finding which opened the way to developing new classes of antimicrobial drugs." How cool are these! And they are not dreams, they really happened, they were done in Dunedin in collaboration with overseas scientists. What message is this sending to the brilliant researchers of the world? Dunedin is a go-ahead place with the people and the intellectual energy for this wonderful work to succeed!

Now just suppose that all the city money spent on get-rich-quick, "free-money" and certain people's pet schemes were diverted into making Dunedin even more appealing to the world's elite researchers, inventors and developers. Like tourists, like visitors coming for sports events, these people would spend money in here, year in year out. Their families would, too. Their children would go to our schools, then University. Their research assistants, equipment builders and all the people that permanent residents need - plumbers, electricians, hairdressers and hedge-trimmers would have extra work. And we could all feel so proud - "Dunedin, yes indeed - that's where X, Y and Z were developed, we decided to concentrate on being a smarter city and we've never looked back!"

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