Ebola, HIV, Hepatitis C and now Coronavirus – historically, viruses have been one of the most deadly microorganisms known to man. The current strike rate of COVID-19 has given the virus a particularly bad reputation. But what if there was a good guy in the world of virology?
Bacteriophages – literally ‘eaters of bacteria’ – make a strong case. These spidery viruses are one of the most abundant life-forms on the planet, and scientific studies have proven these microorganisms to be formidable agents in the fight against dangerous bacteria.
Specialised in molecular genetics and bacteriophage biology, La Trobe University’s Dr Steve Petrovski has spent the better part of the last decade studying phages and their application in targeting and eliminating specific types of bacteria, both in the field of medicine and defence.
After completing a PhD at La Trobe University in 2008, studying bacteria and antimicrobial resistance, Dr Petrovski did a three-year postdoc working with bacteriophages to combat recalcitrant bacteria in wastewater treatment plants. He then spent four years working in industry, before returning in 2015 to La Trobe University as a Senior Lecturer in Physiology Anatomy and Microbiology, running his own research group and the Petrovski Lab.
It was around then that Dr Petrovski began a small collaboration with Defence Science and Technology’s (DST) Dr Michael Beer, also a La Trobe alumnus, who saw great potential in using bacteriophages as detection systems in the military. Bacteriophages require host bacteria to multiply, locating and embedding themselves within the organisms before ultimately causing them to disintegrate. Harnessing this power could mean developing a potential detection tool for biological warfare.
“I designed honours research projects to commence the project. However, we had no funding and it was difficult to obtain when all we had was an idea and no preliminary data,” said Dr Petrovski. “That’s when I heard of the Defence Science Institute (DSI) through a liaison manager at La Trobe.”
With the idea of developing a colour reaction to detect a specific species of bacteria using a small isolated group of bacteriophage, Dr Petrovski and Dr Beer applied for funding through a DSI CERA Grant program and were successful.
Using the funds from the grant, they employed a postdoc and later an honours student to work on the project. A year into the research, determined to continue the study, Dr Petrovski applied for and received additional funding from DST and La Trobe University. Research is still underway, and a breakthrough imminent.
Dr Steve Petrovski (front, centre) along with other researchers at the Petrovski Lab
“While the project has been challenging right from the beginning, it is currently continuing with the help of a PhD student who has greatly propelled the research. We believe we are now close to developing the diagnostic tool,” Dr Petrovski said. The tool, he hopes, will have a huge impact on the defence research sector, enabling the detection of living organisms that may be used in a bioterrorism attack.
“Without the DSI grant we would have never been at the stage we are at currently. It was the success of the DSI grant that led to the further funding from both DST and La Trobe university,” he said adding that his current research has been largely influenced by the funding received from DSI.
Dr Steve Petrovski’s story of research progression is one of many at DSI and demonstrates how research outcomes are transferable and of value across multiple sectors, including defence and others. DSI aims to establish connections between industry and academia, and encourages researchers who may not have had any experience with the defence sector to make contact to leverage the many grant and support options available to advance research.