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Louise Negline
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Louise Negline, Communications Coordinator, Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute T: +61 2 4221 4702 M: +61 417 044 867 E:


Targeting the sweet spot to prevent bacterial infections

Researcher awarded prestigious NHMRC grant for research into streptococcal infections

A University of Wollongong researcher has been awarded a prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant to continue research into bacterial sugar recognition to prevent infection.

Resistance to antibiotics is becoming a major world-wide threat, partially due to high rates of antibiotic prescription, including in children.

Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) Research Fellow Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith, an infectious disease scientist in UOW’s Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, is striving to find non-antibiotic treatments for kids with sore throats.

She has been awarded $470,000 over three years to further her work into the connection between blood group and Group A Streptococcus.

This research is one of 732 projects supported by the Federal Government in the latest round of NHMRC project funding, as announced on 6 December 2017 by the Honourable Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health.

Professor Nicolle Parker and Dr Arun Dass at the Griffith Institute of Glycomics also contributed the project.

Early research at IHMRI has found a link between blood type O sugars and bacterial colonisation.

“Rather than focusing on just the bacteria, we took a different approach and looked at the host as well. We found that Streptococci that are associated with sore throats use small sugars, or glycans on the surface of the throat to attach to a host. Everybody has these structures in their throat, but the number and type of glycan differs from person to person,” said Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith.

Young children generally can experience recurrent bouts of upper respiratory infections. The benefits of using antibiotics can often outweigh the risks, but repeated use can have unwanted side effects.

“One of the outcomes we are striving for is alternatives to antibiotics for common childhood infections,” said Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith.

“A sore throat is one of the most common reasons children are prescribed antibiotics, but we are becoming more aware that antibiotic overuse can be a problem, so developing non-antibiotic treatments for bacterial infections is important,” she said.

Repeated streptococcal infections can lead to chronic conditions such as rheumatic heart disease while severe infections claim more than 600,000 lives per year.

The next phase of the research is trying to understand the link between streptococcus and blood groups, and identify which sugar structures can be used to block infection.