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Fighting the resistance

'From MDs to basic chemists': Researchers tackle antimicrobial concern


By Kelly Foss

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 was one of the greatest scientific advancements of the 20th century.

The laboratory-curiosity turned life-saving drug has saved countless lives. However, over-prescribing and over-use is decreasing its effectiveness and antibiotic-resistant diseases are on the rise.

Dr. Kapil Tahlan
Dr. Kapil Tahlan
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Kapil Tahlan, an associate professor with the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, has been working in the field of antimicrobial drug discovery and resistance (AMR) for more than 20 years.

“Antibiotics are probably the only class of drugs that as soon as you use them, you lose them, because of the potential for developing resistance,” he said.

“There’s no other class of drugs with that problem. A person can take certain drugs for chronic conditions for the rest of their life, for example, but you can’t do that with antibiotics.”

He says the field has been getting a lot of attention in recent years, but those working in it have been trying to draw awareness to the issue for the last 70 years.

Creating solutions together

This month, Dr. Tahlan has been invited to participate in a conference taking place at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Roorkee, India, from March 5-11 that will see the discussion of such themes as antibiotic resistance in epidemiology, livestock and agriculture, and poultry, as well as drug discovery approaches, the use of probiotics and nanotechnology to combat AMR and the economic and social impacts of AMR.

“I think getting more people involved who are not directly from the field will really help [antibiotic resistance].” — Dr. Kapil Tahlan

“It’s a big problem, and nobody is going to be able to do it alone,” said Dr. Tahlan. “That’s exactly what this conference is for. It will bring everyone together from MDs to basic chemists and put them in one place to think about an issue that is becoming more and more common.”

He says while many assume the problem is going to be solved by clinicians, microbiologists or drug companies, he believes the issue will require more than just experts working on antibiotic discovery.

“It’s also going to take a change in policy because of everything we’ve done and where we are right now,” he said.

“We need to change how we think about antibiotics and do things in the future. So, it’s optimistic, but I think getting more people involved who are not directly from the field will really help.”

A photo of seven members of the Tahlan research group.
Dr. Kapil Tahlan’s research group.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Crash course

As part of the conference, the organizing committee is also bringing together people working on different aspects of AMR to give them a crash course in everything to do with resistance, drug discovery and state-of-the-art research in the field.

“It’s nice that they’ve tied this to a symposium where the trainees will get to see experts speak and then get to do a one-week workshop at the institute,” he said.

“As one of the resource people, I’ll be co-ordinating part of the workshop. India has been putting a lot of resources into AMR research and they have a lot of expertise, so that’s why the conference is being organized there.”

Dr. Tahlan has been working with the conference organizers at IIT Roorkee for quite a while. He first connected with them when working as a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University; many of his group members are alumni of that institution, which has helped strengthen the ties.

History of success

His research group at Memorial has been working with clavulanic acid, a widely used anti-resistance drug, to see how it is made and how to make analogues of it.

Previously, Dr. Tahlan worked with a drug now in clinical trials for tuberculosis that is also hard to get resistance against.

“We have a history in pre-clinical drug discovery, so this new research is a nice addition to that,” he said.

“We’re currently in the process of revising a paper on a novel kind of enzyme that is normally involved in antibiotic resistance, and are also screening for new inhibitors of resistance. We’ve got a couple of candidates right now that we are trying to figure out what they are and how they work. I think that will keep us busy for a very long time.”

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