We are leading the global fight to stop deadly superbugs

Help us discover the unknown in antibiotics

Image of microbes in a petri dish

We're discovering the unknown in superbugs

"We aim to save more than 700,000 lives every year by preventing antibiotic-resistant bacteria becoming a pandemic problem in an age of faster and far-reaching global interaction."
– Professor Ian Henderson

Imagine a world in which a simple scratch could kill you. It may sound unfathomable, but this was reality before the development of antibiotics in the mid 20th century.

Prior to these life-saving drugs, over half of all deaths were due to bacterial infection, and a scratch or wound could ultimately lead to your death if it allowed disease-causing bacteria to enter your body.

Less than a century later, we are facing a return to the pre-antibiotic era. Bacteria are an ever-evolving foe, with the ability to build up resistance to traditional antibiotic drugs, rendering them ineffectual.

Microscopic image of bacteria

Gram-negative bacteria are resistant to numerous antibiotics.

Gram-negative bacteria are resistant to numerous antibiotics.

These ‘wonder drugs’ have been prescribed inappropriately too many times, helping bacteria develop resistance. Exacerbating the situation is the lack of development of new antibiotics – in the past few decades most pharmaceutical companies have ended their programs.

So now, the bad old days are returning, where some infections have no cure. We face the likelihood of deciding whether chemotherapy or surgery is worth the risk of catching a deadly infection in hospital.

Worldwide, 700, 000 people die every year as a result of antimicrobial resistance, with a mortality rate of 200 people per week in Australia alone.

The number of people dying is a grim reminder of how formidable superbugs are. But our researchers are teaming with colleagues from across The University of Queensland to fight back.

We are crowdsourcing new antibiotic compounds through screening compounds developed for different purposes in laboratories around the world and then abandoned, through the Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Development.

96 well plate containing pink and purple liquids

CO-ADD screens compounds from around the world for their antibiotic properties.

CO-ADD screens compounds from around the world for their antibiotic properties.

We are taking ‘forgotten’ antibiotics and modifying them to act against today’s superbugs.

And by investigating the surface activity of superbugs at molecular level, we have discovered how these microbial marvels elude the human immune system.

We’re now well on the way to developing preventative therapies, biomarkers and vaccines to foil these elusive microbial assassins from plaguing our world.

Shining a light on: Ian Henderson

Professor Ian Henderson may be a researcher in science, but it was a knowledge of history that inspired him to study some of the world’s smallest living organisms.

The new Director of IMB has devoted his working life to studying antibiotic resistance – the ability of microbes to resist treatment – and develop solutions to this urgent global challenge.

Professor Henderson, who is Irish born and bred, says he has always been fascinated by how decisions in history shape the world in which we live today.

“Growing up in Ireland, the microbe that stands out most in the school curriculum is the one that caused potato blight, which directly led to the Irish famine. This event had a massive impact on Irish society, causing mass deaths and emigration, depleting three-quarters of the population, and it was all caused by a tiny organism – this really drove my interest in microbes.

“If we can understand the relationship between the surface of a bacterial cell and its environment, then we can disrupt those interactions and stop infection, and the negative consequences of coming into contact with some micro-organisms.”

Professor Ian Henderson

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