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Breakthrough ENT research funded to tackle global antibiotic resistance crisis

The global antimicrobial resistance crisis is ‘one of the biggest threats to human and animal health today’, according to the World Health Organisation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Australian Government. Around 1.2 million people died in 2019 from antibiotic-resistant infections.

Significant new funding for Australian research could help reduce that death rate and improve the quality of life for millions of patients.

Professor Sarah Vreugde, a Health and Medical researcher at the University of Adelaide, a world-class institution in the area of antibiotic alternative research, has been awarded funding by the Passe and Williams Foundation to undertake medical research which will play a key role in combating the antimicrobial resistance pandemic.

As one of the 17 successful applicants to receive funding from the Passe and Williams Foundation this year, she has been awarded $1.25 million through the Foundation’s flagship award, the Senior Fellowship, to conduct research to help find a permanent cure for patients suffering from chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS). CRS is one of the most common diagnoses for which antibiotics are prescribed and contributes significantly to the global antimicrobial resistance crisis.

Currently, around 10 percent of the Western population is affected by CRS, which can have significant long-term impact on quality of life, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and permanent loss of smell.

Dr Jeanette Pritchard, CEO of the Passe and Williams Foundation said, “This research will be of enormous benefit to the ear, nose and throat (ENT) sector, locally and globally. Its outcomes will not only reduce pressure on the healthcare system, but will also improve quality of life for many patients, and will have a significant role in reducing the threat of antimicrobial resistance.”

Prof. Vreugde said: “Chronic rhinosinusitis is one of the most common reasons that doctors prescribe antibiotics to patients, which offers short-term relief but can trigger long-term issues.

“Antibiotics kill off the weaker bacteria, in turn promoting the survival of stronger, antibiotic-resistant strains. These bacteria reproduce very quickly, replicating in a matter of hours and forming a community that is now better adapted to resist antibiotics.”

The first phase of her project, Prof. Vreugde aims to develop a complete understanding of the pathophysiology of CRS, including why some patients become very ill while others do not. A key focus of the research is staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria which is a pivotal driver of CRS.

“Staphylococcus aureus, also known as golden staph, is a very common bacteria, found in many people and other common places in the world — including most dogs. In fact, 30 percent of the world’s population are carriers and will therefore always have microbes of this bacteria in areas such as their nose,” Prof. Vreugde explains.

“Some strains of ‘golden staph’ are virulent, leading to conditions such as chronic sinusitis, while other strains are less virulent, leading to lesser or even no disease at all. Golden staph commonly sticks to other bacteria, which surround themselves with a slimy layer, called a biofilm. It seems patients with a thicker biofilm experience more severe disease than others.”

Through her research, Prof. Vreugde aims to understand the role of other bacteria in biofilms, identify the most damaging virulence factors, and investigate whether it is possible to target those virulence factors either directly or indirectly, by removing the small collections of DNA which create virulence factors, known as plasmids.

Rather than eradicating the biofilm completely, which prompts it to adapt and retaliate, Prof. Vreugde will explore how to reduce the damage from virulence factors through a range of targeted methods.

“When I was working as a surgeon, I would admittedly prescribe antibiotics without considering the long-term effects of antimicrobial resistance. This was largely due to hospital protocols, where doctors were pressured to prescribe antibiotics for quick and short-term relief. Whereas antibiotics can be lifesaving in some instances, we now know that such practices can create long-term harm.”

“Alongside new treatments such as those I’ll be looking to develop with the support of the Passe and Williams Foundation, widespread behaviour change is required amongst both patients and doctors. Not only to ensure a better understanding of antimicrobial resistance, which threatens to harm us all, but so that patients can enjoy a better quality of life.”

The Foundation received over 70 applications from researchers, scientists and surgeons as part of its annual award round for 2023. The Foundation has committed more than $6 million toward research this year, its most significant funding round in recent years. Since offering its first awards in 1993, the Foundation has committed over $80 million toward innovative ENT-related research.

Dr. Pritchard adds, “The Passe and Williams Foundation is proud to support awardees like Professor Vreugde, who are immensely passionate and equipped to create real, life-changing outcomes for patients.

“We look forward to supporting her journey, and to continue supporting other innovations that shape the future of Australia’s ENT sector.”

More information about the project can be found at

Professor Sarah Vreugde: Bio

Sarah is the Chief Research Scientist for the Department of Otolaryngology (The University of Adelaide) since July 2011, working closely together with Prof Wormald and Prof Psaltis. Prof Vreugde graduated with Highest Distinction as a Medical Doctor from the Brussels University (VUB) in Belgium in 1994. She subsequently specialised in ENT at the same university. She obtained her PhD degree in molecular biology (Tel Aviv University, Israel) in 2002. During her PhD, she cloned and phenotyped human and mouse genes that cause hereditary hearing loss. During her subsequent work at the DIBIT research centre in Milan (Italy), she investigated the role of unconventional myosins in RNA polymerase II dependent transcription.

About the Passe & Williams Foundation 

Passe & Williams Foundation* improves the health of people with ear, nose and throat (ENT) conditions by funding life-changing medical research, surgery and care. Over the past 30 years the Foundation has committed more than $80 million to the best people and projects across the sector, resulting in world-leading medical advances. The Passe & Williams Foundation is dedicated to advancing excellence in Otolaryngology Head and Neck surgery, and ensuring Australia and New Zealand remain at the forefront of world clinical and scientific practice. The Foundation was established by Barbara Williams in 1986 to honour the memory of her two husbands, Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams. It became operational following Barbara’s death in 1991, with a purpose to advance the ENT medical specialty in Australia and New Zealand. Life-changing advances made possible by the Passe and Williams Foundation range from every newborn baby receiving a hearing screening test, to early detection of head and neck cancers. The Foundation funds an annual awards program and hosts the influential Frontiers conference, led by a Board and management team made up of sector leaders and experts. 

More information:

*Passe & Williams Foundation is the trading name for the Garnett Passe and Rodney Williams Memorial Foundation.

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