Fighting infection
with friendly fire

Doomadgee in Queensland’s Gulf Country, and Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands, are worlds away from the Herston research laboratory of Professor Anders Cervin, UQ’s Chair in Otolaryngology.

That vast divide is being bridged by a strong partnership working on world-first research to address a critical health issue for Indigenous children living in remote communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have some of the world’s highest rates of middle ear infections, or otitis media.

They experience it earlier, they develop more serious forms, and it often results in hearing loss.

Image courtesy of Queensland Health

Image courtesy of Queensland Health

The impacts can be profound, causing delays in speech and language development, and difficulties with education and participation in community activities.

As these children progress into adulthood, they are at greater risk of social and economic disadvantage.

The POPI Study – or Prevention of Otitis media with Probiotics in Indigenous Children – is investigating whether ‘good bacteria’ specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children could be used to fight their ear infections.

Professor Cervin is leading the project, in conjunction with Queensland Health’s award-winning ‘Deadly Ears’ program.

Professor Cervin and Dr Coleman meet with Mulungu Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre Indigenous Ear health worker Chantal Hunter and CEO Gail Wason in Mareeba.

“We are very grateful to the people of these Indigenous communities, who have been so supportive of our research,” Professor Cervin says.

“We have been able to take nasal swabs from healthy children with no history or only mild cases of ear infections.

Image courtesy of Queensland Health

Image courtesy of Queensland Health

"This helps us to find good bugs – those types of microorganisms present in their respiratory tract that are helpful in fighting off the bad bugs that cause ear infections.

"These are the potential candidates for probiotics.”

Back in the lab at Herston, the research group set up a bacteria showdown.

Potentially beneficial bugs were added to petri dishes containing the bad bacteria known to cause ear infections – Haemophilus influenza, Streptococcuspneumoniae and Moraxellacatarrhalis.

It soon became apparent which bacteria had aptitude for probiotic use – killing off the bad bugs or reducing their growth.

Dr Andrea Coleman is continuing testing of the most promising candidates to make sure they do not contribute to antibiotic resistance or cause toxicity.

The most beneficial bacteria that pass the safety tests will be added to a nasal spray and tested in a small clinical trial.

About 10 to 20 children with middle ear infections will be given the spray to use for a few weeks after their standard course of antibiotics.

The theory is that good bacteria may re-colonise the upper airways, and help fend off future infections, or at least reduce the rate of recurrence.

Depending on the outcome, a larger trial would then test the spray in a larger cohort of children.

This story is featured in the Summer 2017 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine visit our content hub, MayneStream.