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Research Impact: What we have learned about antibiotic resistance from Dr. Miguel Valvano’s work

Cystic Fibrosis Canada-funded Dr. Miguel Valvano completed a three year project in March 2015 that advanced our understanding of bacterial antibiotic resistance. Dr. Valvano studied a specific type of bacteria, Burkholderia cenocepacia, which often cause lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis (CF). Burkholderia bacteria live in the soil and as such, have learned to survive in an environment where antibiotics, produced by soil ecosystems, are often present. Although Burkholderia bacteria are extremely resistant to antibiotics, scientists did not know much about the reasons behind this resistance.

Dr. Valvano and his team at the University of Western Ontario (Canada) and Queen’s University Belfast (United Kingdom), studied the Burkholderia bacteria, in particular, examining parts of its’ outer surface, or ‘envelope’, to find out what makes it stable. In their past work, they found that the bacteria’s envelope played a major role in antibiotic resistance. They also found that in addition to being resistant to antibiotics, Burkholderia bacteria could also defend against antimicrobial molecules produced by the body’s natural immune system, by secreting molecules that stop natural antimicrobials from working. Burkholderia bacteria produce more of these antimicrobial molecules when a person is being treated with antibiotics.

By studying the cell envelope of Burkholderia bacteria, Dr. Valvano’s team found that if the cell envelope is missing a particular type of molecule that helps to stabilize the cell’s outer surface, then the bacteria become more susceptible to the body’s natural immune response. They also identified other parts of the cell envelope that are critical to antibiotic resistance, and found molecules that can interfere with these processes. Future work by Dr. Valvano’s team would investigate ways to further weaken the bacterial cell envelope, to make the bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics. The ultimate goal of this work is to better understand antibiotic resistance in Burkholderia bacteria and other CF pathogens and to develop drugs that can effectively kill them, minimizing the risk of infections in people with CF.

This work on bacterial antibiotic resistance has been featured in several international news reports, including TV reports. Click here to read a blog post about their work.

Did you know?

This research was originally made possible by funding through the O’Reilly Program Grant. This program, in memory of Michael O’Reilly, was announced in 2001 and involved a $900,000 commitment over five years to explore and discover new approaches to treating people with CF with Burkholderia cepacia complex and other multi-resistant bacteria in their lungs.

Dr. Valvano is the former director of the O’Reilly Program Grant and a Zeller’s Canada Cystic Fibrosis Researcher. Since 2012, he has directed two research teams in Canada and the UK focused on Burkholderia research.


Dr. Miguel Valvano currently holds a Chair in Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, and was a former Tier I Canada Research Chair in Infectious Diseases and Microbial Pathogenesis in the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He has dedicated his research career to understanding how bacteria cause disease. (http://publish.uwo.ca/~mvalvano/)