AUSTRALIAN researchers want to reduce the threat posed by hospital superbugs using DNA sequencing and data analysis.
National ICT Australia yesterday said it was researching techniques to help hospitals locate the original carrier of a superbug, to find its origin globally, and to identify in advance which antibiotics would effectively treat an outbreak.
NICTA researcher Thomas Conway said DNA sequencing was now cheap enough to make it affordable to perform DNA sequencing on all patients affected by an outbreak.
“We are developing techniques to quickly and efficiently construct a family tree of infections so we can see which infection is the parent of them all,” Mr Conway said.
“The idea is to find the source. Part of what we are doing gives us a sufficiently detailed view of the specific strains of the infection that we can work across hospitals to address a larger public health issue.”
Data gathered about a particular strain could be checked against global data to determine whether it first existed overseas and had subsequently been brought into Australia, and by whom.
Mr Conway said DNA analysis could help work out what drugs certain superbugs would respond to, and which ones they would be resistant to, eliminating a trial-and-error approach to dispensing antibiotics.
Yesterday NICTA showcased its research projects at its annual Techfest which this year was held at Parliament House in Canberra.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who opened Techfest, said a study by Deloitte estimated NICTA projects would have a combined annual impact of $3 billion per year on the Australian economy.
Ms Gillard said one NICTA invention provided the live audio platform for major outdoor events and concerts around the world, while another provided the operating system for 1.5 billion mobile phones.
She would make a “major statement” on Australian innovation and jobs next week.
“The future does not belong to the timid and no dream is ever big enough,” Ms Gillard said.
NICTA said it was undertaking research into whether it could identify high risk prostate cancer with lethal consequences as opposed to low risk prostate cancers that didn’t require prostate removal.
Researcher Geoff Macintyre said only 10-15 per cent of prostate cancers were potentially lethal and a large number of sufferers were unnecessarily having prostatectomies which risked huge side effects such as infection, erectile dysfunction and incontinence.
At diagnosis there currently was no way of knowing whether a prostate cancer would be potentially lethal other than the radical surgery to remove it, he said.
The research aimed to identify high versus low risk prostate cancer by looking at the molecular signature of tumours to understand the mechanisms underpinning the lethal disease versus non-lethal form.
“The way to do that is to profile with high throughput sequencing technologies so we look at the DNA sequence, we look at the levels of activities of genes within the cells and a lot of the structure properties of DNA.
“That all combined makes a huge amount of data, and that’s where NICTA comes in with the ICT expertise to analyze that data.”
NICTA also is using biomedical imagining to assist radiologists to detect the progression of multiple sclerosis by identifying the exact number of new and growing lesions.
This would give sufferers a clear picture of the likely development of the disease over time, researcher Alan Zhang said.
NICTA said its contract to help safeguard the structural integrity of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by monitoring vibrations caused by traffic was nearing an end; it would seek to renew and expand the venture.
Researchers said a tiny, visually undetectable fracture in the bridge could be picked up through changes in the vibrations.