Nova Scotia

Scientist looking to bats and bees in fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs

A researcher in Halifax hopes that a new high-tech tool will help them find superbug-fighting antibiotics from an unusual source.

'We've exhausted all the easier sources, now we kind of have to get a little bit more creative'

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a growing problem across the globe. (CDC/Associated Press)

A researcher in Halifax hopes that a new high-tech tool will help discover superbug-fighting antibiotics from an unusual source — bat and honeybee colonies.

"[Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are] a major concern for hospitals around the world and certainly in Canada and right now," said Clarissa Sit, assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Mary's University.

"I know that physicians and health-care workers are really trying to be careful about how antibiotics are being prescribed."

Sit plans to test samples taken from bee and bat colonies collected throughout North America and potentially isolate new antibiotics that can kill superbugs like MRSA and C. difficile. 

She'll do so using a high-resolution mass spectrometer — a tool that allows scientists to precisely detect the chemical composition in a given sample. Sit recently received funding for the equipment, which should arrive at Saint Mary's within six months.

Natural infection fighters

Sit said many antibiotics in use now occur naturally in the environment, from either bacteria or fungi found in the soil.

Other antibiotics are "inspired" by these naturally derived infection fighters and a few are synthetically made by humans. 

"We basically look to [nature] for inspiration because some of the more complex drugs we use — not just antibiotics but other types of drugs like for blood pressure lowering or cholesterol lowering drugs — are also from natural sources originally," said Sit. 

Antibiotics exhausted

However, some bacteria have developed resistance to these treatments. A 2014 report to the British government estimates antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, viruses and fungi already kills 700,000 people worldwide each year.

"We've exhausted all the easier sources, now we kind of have to get a little bit more creative," said Sit.

And that's where the bats and the bees come in. Both are social creatures that live in colonies and both have been targeted by nasty microbes. 

Some researchers believe exposure to stressors such as bacteria and neonicotinoid insecticides make bees more vulnerable to the tiny Varroa mite thought to be the main culprit in declining honeybee health. (Getty Images)

'Microbial warfare'

What Sit and others are interested in is the interaction between harmful microbes and the defensive microbes.

"It's like microbial warfare out there," she said.

"There are millions of these types of cells living in the same environment and they're competing for the same nutrition and food sources and just basic resources. 

"And so because they're always in competition, they're trying to sort of one up each other and if we can sort of get smart about studying these interactions, we might be able to take advantage of some of them and use it for human use." 

White-nose syndrome is a fatal infection caused by a fungus that causes bats to wake frequently during winter hibernation. With limited food available, the bats die from starvation and hypothermia. (Peter Thomson/La Crosse Tribune/The Associated Press)

The possibility for the next superbug-fighting antibiotic is just one of the benefits of the research.

Sit hopes her work will also help scientists better understand white-nose syndrome in bats and colony collapse disorder in honey bees. 

With files from Information Morning