U of C antibiotic study helps physicians battle dangerous bacteria

Researchers at the University of Calgary are helping antibiotics work smarter, not harder, by giving physicians new tools to diagnose infections.

New smartphone app, database designed to make antibiotics stay effective for longer, researcher says

Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, is just one of the dangerous bacteria that researchers at the University of Calgary are working to treat more effectively through the precision infection management (PIM) program. (Agricultural Research Service)

Researchers at the University of Calgary are helping antibiotics work smarter, not harder, by giving physicians new tools to diagnose infections.

Ian Lewis, assistant professor at the U of C and project lead of precision infection management (PIM), says not much about antibiotics has changed since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928.

But thanks to an $11-million grant, PIM will use new diagnostic tools — including a smartphone app and a new database called ResistanceDB — to slow dangerous bacteria's antibiotic resistance by helping clinicians identify pathogens and prescribe the correct treatments.

Ian Lewis says the tools being developed at the University of Calgary could help slow the antibiotic resistance by better diagnosing infections. (CBC)

"Every person that comes in is treated empirically according to their symptoms and very little attention is paid to the individual differences between infections," Lewis told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"The bacteria that cause our infections are quite different, and so if you can tailor your infection-management strategy according to the risk posed by each pathogen, then patient outcomes could be much better," he said.

Lewis says PIM will introduce new infection-management practices that he says will "revolutionize the current way we control infections" from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to a personalized one.

Antibiotic resistance

Precision infection management focuses on eight pathogens that cause around 85 per cent of bloodstream infections, with some of the worst offenders being E. coli and staph infections.

As more antibiotics are used to treat infections, bacteria become more resistant, Lewis says.

Lewis says the bacteria that cause infections are quite different, and tailoring infection-management strategies according to risk posed by each pathogen will 'revolutionize the current way we control infections.' (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

He says half of prescribed antibiotics have "no medical benefit" because of a misdiagnosed infection — a problem he blames on a lack of technology available to frontline healthcare workers to identify infections.

"When you present with symptoms at a hospital or at a medical clinic, the physician attending doesn't know if you have a bacterial or viral infection, and frequently they'll err on the side of prescribing antibiotics," he said.

Lewis says there is a real public health concern with over prescribing antibiotics and, if the trend continues, more robust antibiotics will be needed to treat infections. 

Without new drugs or a new way of prescribing the ones we have now, Lewis says the Canadian life expectancy could "be 20 years shorter" in the near future.

'This problem isn't going to go away'

The $11-million grant includes funds from Genome Canada with support from the Government of Alberta, Alberta Health Services and Calgary Lab Services. Compute Canada, the University of Wisconsin and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have also partnered with the PIM team.

Lewis says most of the funds are going toward building a database so clinicians will be able to use the information to better inform their treatments decisions.

Lewis says working with Calgary Lab Services will help collect data on symptoms and develop treatment guidelines available on a smartphone app developed at the U of C called Spectrum, making the data easily available to clinicians in Alberta.

Lewis says PIM will help reduce the need for new antibiotics by working to "ensure that the drugs that we have will remain effective for longer."

"Unfortunately, we're not going to solve the problem with this tool," Lewis said. "This tool will extend the lifetime of our existing antibiotics, but this problem isn't going to go away."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener