Biology & Biotechnology Chair Helps in Fight Against Superbugs

Feb. 4, 2014 -- Philip Lister, Ph.D., chair of CNM’s Department of Biology and Biotechnology, is playing a role in helping eradicate superbugs – drug-resistant bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that are becoming more and more dangerous worldwide.
July 16, 2015


Some of these pathogens have evolved to become resistant to nearly all antibiotics.

Lister recently chaired a National Institutes of Health panel consisting of some of the world’s most renowned infectious disease microbiologists and pharmacologists. The panel reviewed over 30 grant proposals from national and international research institutions proposing novel ways to treat infections. Grants will range from $5 to $7 million each and will be for five years. NIH will take the panel’s recommendations into consideration when making award decisions.

Lister said he was tapped to chair the panel because of his 15-year history serving on NIH grant panels – including chairing five – and because of his extensive research in the area of antibacterial resistance. Before coming to CNM two-and-a-half years ago, he was a professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology for 25 years at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

“All the grant proposals we looked at were very impressive with some being outstanding. The big question is whether any of the ideas proposed will impact the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance,” Lister said.

Last December, each panelist was presented grant proposals in his or her research field to review, looking for strengths and weaknesses. The panelists reported back to the group during the Jan. 14-15 meeting in Bethesda, Md., with detailed accounts of the proposals. Based on presentations by individual panelists, the group ranked the proposals and presented their recommendations to the NIH.

“This research to be funded by the NIH is going to be very significant,” Lister said. “The U.S. and rest of the world may have only a short period of time to act before it’s too late to impact the spread of drug-resistant superbugs. The pipeline of new antibiotics approved by the FDA has been diminishing at an alarming rate, and bacteria and other micro-organisms have continued to evolve in response to the antimicrobial threat we present to them.”

He added, “We are now faced with patients infected with bacteria that are resistant to all available antibiotics, and physicians treating these infections are left with combining antibiotics in the hopes that something will work. The goal of this NIH-funded initiative is to provide a scientific approach to combination therapy with the goal of identifying innovative strategies for treating infections with multi-drug resistant pathogens and slowing the further development of resistance.”

Due in part to increased use of antibiotics, continued evolution of the pathogens causing infections and breakdowns in hospital infection control practices (wearing gloves and gowns or hand washing), drug-resistant superbugs are on the rise. They are causing more hospitalized patients to get infections that, in some cases, are impossible to treat. The most common are bloodstream, respiratory and intestinal infections.

Drug-resistant superbugs tend to strike immune-compromised people who are hospitalized for a long time or living in nursing homes. The concern is that if the antibiotic-resistant bacteria’s spread isn’t contained quickly, even common infections such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory conditions and pneumonia could become untreatable.

“The years before 1930 were called the pre-antibiotic era because antibiotics were just being discovered,” Lister said. “During the last 10 years, discussions of the post-antibiotic era have increased. In the 1970s we never thought we would see this day. Bacteria that were considered routine to treat in the 1970s are now exhibiting resistance to all available antibiotics.”

With a diminishing supply of new antibiotics while micro-organisms continue to develop and spread resistance, it is essential that new strategies be identified and optimized for treating these multi-drug resistant threats. Lister said scientists need to think outside the box, and that the NIH needs to increase its focus on this problem to prevent the post-antibiotic era from becoming a reality.