Genomics is Key to Combating Antimicrobial Resistance

Genomics can aid in the clinic beyond risk assessment and diagnosis. I’ve touched on how genomic medicine can guide treatment in previous posts in terms of drug interaction and cancer, but what about bacterial infections? Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a known and growing problem. There is great potential in using genomics to combat AMR, according to Julian Parkhill, a pathogen genomics expert at the Sanger Institute.

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Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB. Credit: NIAID.

At an event in May, Parkhill discussed how and when high throughput sequencing can help researchers understand AMR. Being able to sequence the DNA of a large number of bacteria, scientists begin to “understand the genomic changes that underlay antimicrobial resistance,” says Parkhill.  “Once you know what those underlying changes are, you can use them in clinical microbiology to start predicting antibiotic resistance direct from genome sequence.”

Bacteria evolves very quickly, and will spread throughout a population depending on the pathogen’s mutations. “A lot of the work we do in genomics is looking at transmission, global transmission. Particularly looking at where diseases come from, how they spread… understanding how pathogens transmit, how they get into populations,” says Parkhill.

Sometimes, an evolving bacteria will require one vaccine in one region, and an entirely different vaccine in another. Vaccines only interact with a part of the bacterial population, so anticipating how the disease will change becomes crucial. Sequencing the genome of different strains of a pathogen greatly boosts efforts in developing a vaccine. Parkhill continues, “It’s crucial to know what the [bacterial] population looks like, what the effect of the vaccine is, how that changes the population structure, and how that impacts the disease.”

As for the future of genomics in microbiology? Parkhill is confident, saying “Over the next few years it’s very likely that genome sequencing will become a routine tool in clinical microbiology.”

You can listen to Parkhill’s short Q&A here.

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