Dangerous bug under the microscope

October 25, 2017

Daniel Knight

One Health research: Daniel Knight will be studying the genetic makeup of the dangerous bacterium

A Murdoch University researcher has won more than $300,000 in Federal Government funding to study a bacterium that causes life-threatening diarrhoea in humans and animals.

In a four-year project, Daniel Knight from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences will further his research into Clostridium difficile infection (CDI), one of the most important healthcare-associated infections worldwide.

C. difficile causes disease through the production of toxins that affect the gut. Infection is spread by bacterial spores found in faeces. Surfaces may become contaminated with the spores, with further spread between people via the hands.

It’s estimated that each year in the USA, CDI results in up to 500,000 infections and 29,000 deaths. In Australia, there are around 10,000 cases of CDI per year resulting in approximately 600 deaths (11 per week).

“My research is all about studying the genetic makeup of this complex bacterium and identifying factors contributing to its emergence, evolution and spread,” Mr Knight said.

His PhD research into the bacterium has shown that livestock in Australia are reservoirs for important strains of C. difficile, which are causing disease in humans in both the hospital and community. Mr Knight has also demonstrated, for the first time, inter-species transmission of C. difficile between livestock and humans.

“These findings provide compelling evidence that CDI could be transmitted through food or animal contact, challenging the existing assumption that infection is explicitly healthcare-associated,” Mr Knight said.

“The capacity for the bacterium to cause disease in animals, and the resulting economic and animal health implications, has led to CDI emerging as a global One Health issue.”

The One Health concept is a philosophical approach to improving and safeguarding the health of humans, animals and the environment and, importantly, recognises that these three areas are inter-related.

Mr Knight will use state-of-the-art genomics to study C. difficile genomes derived from diverse clinical, veterinary and environmental sources under the supervision of Professor Thomas Riley.

“My research aim is to provide novel insights into the zoonotic potential of this important pathogen and its contribution to antimicrobial resistance (AMR),” he said.

“Crucially, we need to better understand the mechanisms that facilitate transmission of C. difficile spores from farms to the community.”

Mr Knight says this knowledge will be essential in guiding effective public health interventions designed to mitigate the risk of C. difficile transmission to and from humans and animals.

Mr Knight is a recipient of a prestigious Peter Doherty Early Career Fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council. His research is being funded through this award.

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