Monash scientists gain multimillion-dollar NIH grant for ‘superbug’ drug discovery program


The Monash team (from left to right): Dr Kade Roberts, Dr Tony Velkov, Professor Jian Li, Professor Roger Nation (and Associate Professor Philip Thompson, absent due to business travel)

A world-leading team, led by Professor Jian Li from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), has been awarded a multi-million dollar grant by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to further its pioneering work on drug discovery, tackling antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs'.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently identified 12 bacterial ‘superbugs’ which present a significant global medical challenge and require urgent attention for the discovery of new antibiotics. The polymyxin antibiotics (i.e. polymyxin B and colistin) are often the only option against the top three pathogens. However, safety issues such as kidney toxicity and the emergence of resistance have compromised their clinical use. There is a desperate need to develop safer, more effective polymyxins.

The grant is for US $4.2million over five years to support the Monash team and its development partner, a US pharma company, to develop new-generation polymyxins against the top-priority life-threatening bacterial ‘superbugs’.

This large NIH R01 project is led by Principal Investigators Professor Jian Li, a key member of Monash BDI’s Antimicrobial Resistance Group, and Dr Tony Velkov (Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences [MIPS]). The Monash team also comprises Dr Kade Roberts (Co-Investigator, chemistry team leader of the group), Associate Professor Philip Thompson (Co-Investigator, MIPS) and Professor Roger Nation (Consultant, MIPS).

“Unlike several other unsuccessful polymyxin discovery programs, our discovery is underpinned by long-term polymyxin pharmacology research and novel drug design. We have the capability to rapidly synthesise and evaluate the safety and efficacy of superior polymyxin-like molecules in my lab,” Professor Li said.

Dr Velkov, who developed the first model on how polymyxins interact with the bacterial target, said that developing such a drug is critical to global health. 

“The risk of multidrug-resistant bacterial ‘superbugs’ is that we may go backwards to a time when we didn’t have antibiotics and people died from treatable infections,” Dr Velkov said.

The team aims to develop at least one new polymyxin drug candidate for clinical trials in the near future.

“This is not a trivial task and requires a coordinated multi-disciplinary research effort, involving chemistry, microbiology, systems biology, bioanalysis and pharmacology,” said Dr Roberts, the project manager for the group’s NIH-funded polymyxin drug discovery program.

In congratulating the team, Monash BDI Director Professor John Carroll said, “This grant reflects the high calibre of Professor Li’s team, which is exceptional in its international leading knowledge of the pharmacology of polymyxins and the translation into drug discovery.”

“Professor Li is one of the very few scientists in Australia who is able to secure multiple prestigious and highly competitive NIH grants,” Director of the Monash Research Office Ms Halina Oswald said.

The NIH has been a major funder of the innovative research program led by Professor Li. This new grant is his sixth NIH grant in the past five years, in addition to three others awarded to him as a key investigator.

Professor Li’s group was only recently awarded a grant worth US$1 million by the NIH for optimising inhaled antibiotics.

About the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute

Committed to making the discoveries that will relieve the future burden of disease, the newly established Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University brings together more than 120 internationally-renowned research teams. Our researchers are supported by world-class technology and infrastructure, and partner with industry, clinicians and researchers internationally to enhance lives through discovery.

About the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences

MIPS is home to Australia’s largest group of pharmaceutical sciences researchers, with more than 250 research-active staff and 150 plus PhD students. Its research has contributed to the Monash University’s ranking of #2 in the world for pharmacy and pharmacology in the 2017 QS World University Rankings by Subject, and #1 in the world for the number of Highly Cited researchers (Clarivate Analytics) in the field of pharmacology and toxicology.