Professor Mark Willcox, Medical Microbiologist and Director of Research at UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science (UNSW SOVS), has been recognised with prestigious awards from the American Optometric Association (AOA) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
The AOA Contact Lens and Cornea Section presented Prof Willcox with the Dr Donald R. Korb Award which “recognises an individual who has been a true innovator and leader in the field of contact lenses and anterior segment disease”.
My research is designed to produce new antimicrobials that can be applied to all medical devices, from contact lenses to artificial organs
Prof Willcox received an NHMRC Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award for the highest scoring Ideas Grant for 2019. His Ideas Grant titled Tackling Hospital Acquired Infections with Peptide Mimics is in collaboration with Professor Naresh Kumar and Dr Renxun Chen (School of Chemistry, UNSW), Professor Cyrille Boyer and Dr Edgar Wong (School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW), Professor David McKenzie (School of Physics, University of Sydney), Associate Professor Natalka Suchowerska (Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, University of Sydney) and Associate Professor Karen Vickery (Macquarie University).
Professor Willcox has worked for many years in the area of infections of medical devices. His laboratory at UNSW SOVS focusses on the development of novel antimicrobials that have applications as antibiotics and disinfectants for a variety of purposes, including coating medical devices to reduce associated infections.
Prof Willcox described hospital acquired infections as a “huge but often neglected worldwide problem”.
Contact lens-associated microbial keratitis is still a problem, even with the greater use of daily disposable lenses
“One in every 74 hospitalisations will result in a hospital acquired infection and 50% of these are associated with a medical device such as a catheter or hip replacement,” he explained. “The cost to the Australian healthcare system of catheter infection alone is approximately AU$170,000,000 per year.”
While Prof Willcox’s work is initially focussed on reducing the burden of catheter-related infections, the technology can be easily translated to produce antimicrobial contact lenses.
“My research is designed to produce new antimicrobials that can be applied to all medical devices, from contact lenses to artificial organs. These coatings will be permanent and provide protection against infection by bacteria, fungi and even viruses and acanthamoeba.
“Contact lens-associated microbial keratitis is still a problem, even with the greater use of daily disposable lenses. The best epidemiological evidence shows that daily disposable lenses do not reduce the incidence of microbial keratitis, but do reduce the severity of the disease. So even if people use daily disposable lenses, about two in 10,000 people will get microbial keratitis each year. My NHMRC grant is designed to produce synthetic mimics of antimicrobial peptides – which will be more stable and cheaper to make – and so ideally suited to coat contact lenses.”
In the first year of the study, Prof Willcox and his team are chemically synthesising the mimics, and evaluating the best ways to maintain activity when bound to surfaces such as catheters and contact lenses.
“We have two Scientia PhD students working in this area – Shyam Mishra is focussed on catheters and Manjulatha Sara is focussed on contact lenses. By the end of this year we will have identified lead compounds and attachment strategies, and then we will move into examining the mechanisms of antimicrobial activity.
“Of particular interest at this time is the potential for these compounds to also be able to kill coronaviruses. We have coronaviruses (not SARS-CoV-2 or SARS etc., but a mouse version that does not infect humans) growing in my laboratory. We hope to be able to demonstrate antiviral activity of at least some of the compounds in the next few weeks. These could then be made into better disinfectants.”