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Griffith Magazine

Scientists aim to turn the dial down on silent killer

Griffith Magazine

Third Edition February 2019

When he talks about sepsis and contemplates the counterproductive bodily behaviour it triggers, Professor Mark von Itzstein is struck by the oddities of nature. He is also determined to conquer such oddities.

A world-leading scientist renowned for his work on influenza, other viral diseases and childhood leukaemia, Mark von Itzstein also heads up an international team at Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics that is focused on curbing the impact of sepsis and septic shock.

“Sepsis has been so intractable in terms of finding a solution,” he says. “There is nothing there at the moment that is comprehensive, nothing that handles the multiple effects on the body. And the pharmaceutical industry is crying out for a solution.”

The Director of the Institute, based at Griffith’s Gold Coast campus, is optimistic about the imminent development of a drug candidate whose impact would be global scale.

The anti-sepsis drug candidate discovered by his research team has now successfully gone through Phase 1 human clinical trials.

Sepsis is known to affect millions of hospitalised patients across the developed world with rates of sepsis on the rise in such settings. It is also recognised as a major cause of maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality in developing countries. Putting a precise number on the epidemiological burden of sepsis is not straightforward however. Statistics supporting a number of 30 million people affected worldwide each year, potentially leading to six million deaths, are cited by the World Health Organization.

“It is diabolical the number of people in the world that are hospitalised as a result of sepsis,” Professor von Itzstein says. “In principle a solution would save millions of lives per annum. The burden on healthcare and health economics would be reduced significantly.”

A “broad program of endeavour” concerned with Infectious Disease Research at the Institute for Glycomics is very well placed and equipped to mount the combat required. Its focus on bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal infectious diseases puts sepsis – caused by most such types of microorganisms – very much in its sights.

Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune response to an infection attacks and injures its own tissues and organs – counter to nature. In the case of septic shock the response can overwhelm the body and lead to multiple organ failure, and potential death.

The Institute for Glycomics is working in partnership with scientists, led by Professor Chris Parish, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University to develop a new drug for the treatment of sepsis. At the Institute for Glycomics, scientists use a sugar-based template they can appropriately modify to optimise the drug candidates’ activity in the fight against sepsis.

This carbohydrate-based approach has been used by Professor von Itzstein and his team in the development of the drug zanamivir, marketed as Relenza, that is the first “designer” anti-influenza drug to come to market.

“With septic shock our immune systems respond by attacking our own cells, attacking our organ system. The body starts to shut itself down. It’s odd how nature works. The body feels like World War III is happening when the infection happens, so the body throws everything it’s got at it. We want to dial down this self-destructive response.”

A drug with the power to “dial down” the impact of the immune system’s response is a goal Professor von Itzstein believes to be within reach.