Chasing bacterial evolution to safeguard human health

Most of us imagine evolution to be a slow process, with changes taking place within species over thousands of years. Associate Professor Jaclyn Pearson is not like most of us. In her role researching antimicrobial resistance (AMR), A/Prof Pearson sees bacterial evolution happening before her eyes.

A/Prof Jaclyn Pearson - beating bacterial evolution
Associate Professor Jaclyn Pearson 

She also sees how harmful bacterial evolution can be.

As a microbiologist and head of the Host Pathogen Interactions Research group, A/Prof Pearson studies how bacteria can evade or fool our defence systems to cause serious health problems. It is a fast-moving field.

“My eureka moment occurred during my PhD when I saw first-hand the many ways in which bacteria meticulously target and manipulate the immune system to ‘hide’ from our defences and cause disease.” Associate Professor Jaclyn Pearson

Beating the bacterial evolution crisis

Each year, almost five million deaths are associated with drug resistant bacterial infections. That number is expected to double by 2050, so it’s no surprise that the World Health Organization calls AMR one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.

A/Prof Pearson says there is an urgent need for progress, as some bacterial infections have no effective antibiotics available, leaving patients hospitalised with no treatment options.

“Major pharmaceutical companies see how quickly bacteria become resistant, so why would they want to invest in developing new antibiotics?” she says.

“Fundamental research utilising cutting edge technology will drive long-term solutions and address the health crisis we now face due to antibiotic resistance.”

Beating the drum to help others

Keeping track of dangerous bacteria means knowing where they have come from and where they are heading – an approach she also takes to her career, after spending much of her 20s on the road as a drummer with the early 2000s rock band, Lash.

“Despite the opportunity to pursue music further, I have stuck with my career in research because it is exciting and compelling. At the end of my career, I want to look back and say I made a difference to someone’s life,” A/Prof Pearson says.

Having benefited from great mentorship early in her career, A/Prof Pearson now wants to help the next generation.

“I moved interstate specifically to train under the supervision of Professor Elizabeth Hartland, who gave me the time, resources, and confidence to work to my strengths and become the successful leader I am today.

“I now strive to be an inspiring and kind mentor to my staff and students.

“If those I mentor continue to pursue a career in science, then I have achieved something special.”

Well-deserved recognition

A/Prof Pearson has been recognised on several fronts, not least being named a Superstar of STEM. She was also one of three Australian scientists to receive a prestigious Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation Senior Medical Research Fellowship (worth $1.375 million over five years).

Hudson Institute Annual Report 2022

Collaborators | Monash University; Peter Doherty Institute; WEHI

Funders | Australian Society for Immunology; NHMRC; Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation

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