Threat of antibiotic-resistant infections cannot be underestimated

22 Nov 2017

Dr Rachel McLoughlin, assistant professor in immunology at Trinity College Dublin. Image: Science Foundation Ireland

On the back of some major funding, TCD’s Dr Rachel McLoughlin is hoping to stamp out MRSA for good.

The threat posed by antibiotic-resistant infections is not one for the distant future. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stressed that catastrophe is imminent unless we work together today to develop new drugs.

One researcher aiming to do her part is Dr Rachel McLoughlin, assistant professor in immunology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

With stints in Cardiff and Boston under her belt, McLoughlin moved to TCD in 2010. Since then, she has continued to grow her research team and develop a programme focused on understanding the host immune response to infection, particularly MRSA.

Last month, she was named as one of three biomedical researchers to receive this year’s Investigator Award in Science from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), in partnership with Wellcome and the Health Research Board (HRB), worth a total of €5.5m in funding.

She followed this up a month later when she was revealed as the winner of the SFI Early Career Researcher of the Year award at the SFI Science Summit.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I had an amazing physics teacher who certainly played a part in igniting my enthusiasm for science. It was therefore a natural progression for me to study science at university after leaving school. However, it took a while before I knew for definite that yes, research was the career for me.

My approach has always been to take the opportunities that come your way and commit yourself to achieving the maximum that you can from every opportunity and, along the way, you will figure it out. For me, this was probably not until I had started my second postdoctoral degree.

After finishing my first postdoc, I dabbled with the idea of leaving research but then the opportunity to move to the US came along and it seemed too good to miss, so I went for it.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

The bacterium Staphylococcus aureus is a particular concern and the antibiotic-resistant form, known as MRSA, is a major problem for Irish and global healthcare systems.

My research programme focuses on understanding the host immune response to infection with this bacterium, with a particular focus on understanding the adaptive arm of the immune response.

There have been a number of attempts to develop a vaccine against MRSA, but so far all have failed in the clinical trial process.

My research has identified the importance of individual white blood cells, known as T-cells, in protection against MRSA infection, and these findings have directly informed the vaccine development process.

I hope that in the not too distant future, there will be a vaccine available to prevent MRSA infection and that my research will have directly contributed to that.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The threat of antibiotic-resistant infections cannot be underestimated. We are moving dangerously close to a situation whereby we may run out of effective antibiotics.

The concept of a return to the ‘pre-antibiotic era’ is fast becoming a reality, when even the simplest of bacterial infections – eg a throat or ear infection – could become life-threatening.

Therefore, we have to come up with viable alternatives to antibiotics. The development of new vaccines to prevent infection with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics would significantly contribute to the eradication of antibiotic resistance.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The biggest challenge we face as researchers is maintaining a constant funding stream that allows us to develop our research programmes and, critically, retain expertise.

Continuity is key in research labs but it is not always possible due to the constraints of research funding.

Unfortunately, there is only a small pot of money to go around, but there are almost an indefinite number of research questions to be asked, so funding agencies understandably have to prioritise the areas of research that they support.

This makes sense, but there is a risk, of course, that if fundamental high-risk research is not funded, we may miss out on the world’s next great discovery.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

A common misconception about academics is that we get the summer off. The summer is when the majority of research happens!

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

We are making great inroads in the treatment of some cancers, and a lot of patients no longer receive a death sentence when diagnosed with cancer.

This is down to the immense work that has been done over the past two decades in the field of cancer research. However, we cannot afford to be complacent and, if anything, we need to increase our efforts to develop cancer therapies. This deadly disease touches almost the entire population. We need to believe that for future generations, this will not be the case.

Updated, 10.49am, 23 November 2017: This article was updated to include further information on McLoughlins background.