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Infectious research

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Infectious research

Pandemic flu, tuberculosis and antimicrobial resistance are important areas of focus for scientists at the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases.

It may be 60 years since Professor Robert Webster left the University of Otago, but there is a lasting legacy in the form of the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases, named after him and his wife Marjorie. Their endowment to Otago includes the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis.

"Marjorie was very much responsible for talking me into setting that up," explains Webster. "She is a Home Science graduate from Otago and we felt we owed something back to the University."

Professor Kurt Krause (Biochemistry) is the Director for the Webster Centre which is now in its 10th year.

"We're a ‘virtual’ centre, meaning we don't have a building, but we're a collective of scientists and clinicians who are interested in infectious diseases – how to identify them, how do they work, how to treat them, how to prevent them, how to understand them."

While the majority of the Webster Centre researchers are at Otago, a number of scientists from other research institutions participate, including more than 60 experts from four universities and several Crown Research Institutes such as AgResearch and ESR.

Krause says the centre has four main aims – facilitating research in infectious diseases, training students, maintaining a workforce with expertise in infectious diseases and building collaborations to address national infectious diseases issues.

"New Zealand needs strength in all these areas to be ready for future challenges in infectious diseases like pandemic flu or antimicrobial resistance. It is important to remember that after a crisis appears it is too late to begin to develop a response. We need to be ready to respond immediately,” he says.

"At the Webster Centre, we're interested in translational research including the development of vaccines and diagnostics, but we also have a strong interest in mechanism – how do viruses and bacteria and other microbes work? The development of new effective treatments is catalysed by an understanding of the basic biology and disease mechanisms of infectious diseases."

“Some of our main interests at Otago include tuberculosis, antimicrobial resistance and poxviruses."

Tuberculosis (TB) remains a leading cause of death worldwide and is a major focus for Webster Centre scientists, including Professors Greg Cook and Frank Griffin (Microbiology and Immunology).

"Over a million people die each year and there are 480,000 TB infections caused by multidrug-resistant tuberculosis," says Krause.

"If you have multidrug-resistant tuberculosis your odds of death, even with treatment, are over 50 per cent, so new antibiotics are sorely needed."

Allied with that is a crisis in antimicrobial resistance which, in 2016, was called the next great global challenge by the United Nations. Webster Centre scientists are now trying to design new antibiotics and come up with new forms of treatment.

Deputy Director, Professor Andy Mercer (Microbiology and Immunology), who holds the Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis, is currently looking at beneficial aspects of viruses, examining how during infection they are able to turn down inflammation.

Krause says that inflammation, which is helpful during viral infections, can be damaging in human autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and lupus.

"So scientists in the Webster Centre are studying the molecules that viruses use to reduce inflammation to see if they can be used to help people with autoimmune disease."

The centre is now entering a new phase by becoming part of a larger entity called One Health Aotearoa, based at the University of Otago, Christchurch, with the Webster Centre providing a mechanistic focus.

"The idea of One Health is that the health of people, animals and the environment are linked together and should be thought of as one unit," says Krause.

"In a way, it may mean a little bit less independence for the Webster Centre, but in another way it is a nice coincidence because Professor Webster himself was an early advocate of the One Health concept.

"One of the things he championed was that the flu we get every year is passed between birds and livestock and people, which is a direct affirmation of the One Health Concept."

In the future Krause would like to see an infectious disease Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) with the Webster name on it.

"We already have the MacDiarmid CoRE and the Maurice Wilkins CoRE, and Robert Webster is very much in that group in terms of international impact."

Story: Mark Wright
Photo: Alan Dove