Research
Dr. Sophie Kerneis (left) and Leanne Dumontier (right) work in the college's microbiology lab.

A potential crisis looms over the next few decades as infectious diseases become increasingly immune to treatment. Lethbridge College researchers are doing their part to discover and develop new antibiotics by testing plants native to Alberta for antibiotic molecules.

The work of microbiology senior research scientist Dr. Sophie Kernéis and lab technician Leanne DuMontier has received a boost as their lab was recently federally certified to handle Level 2 pathogens – the bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that cause disease. Previously, the lab was only able to work on non-pathogens.

“There is a term we use in microbiology – ESKAPE bacteria, which are known to be more resistant to antibiotics than other pathogens,” explains DuMontier. “Those are the pathogenic bacteria that you find causing nosocomial infections in hospitals, such as Staphylococcus aureus. The new certification gives us opportunities to work with bacteria that are known to cause disease.”

According to the World Health Organization, by 2050, 10 million deaths may occur annually if new antibiotics aren’t developed to treat bacterial infections.

The new certification aids the work of the Antibiotic Alberta Plant Project, launched by Kernéis in 2016. Very few new antibiotics have been discovered in recent decades, even as demand has risen and more bacteria have become immune to existing treatments. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand as antibiotics have been used on patients, creating a drain on the market at the same time that experts are trying to preserve existing antibiotic molecules.

Dumontier (left) and Kerneis (right) collect plant samples in the Lethbridge coulees.

It is in this environment where Kernéis is taking a new approach. Antibiotics currently on the market are mainly derived from fungi or bacteria, but Kernéis’ research is focused on developing antibiotics from plants found in Alberta. Searching the countryside, her team has already collected 45 samples from 16 different plant families, and they have identified two molecules with antibiotic properties.

“We believe these plants are very special,” says Kernéis, pointing to a variety of factors that make prairie plants ideal for this type of research. “Because of the climate, the people, the animals eating them and infecting them, because of the soil, they have to really compete to stay alive from year-to-year. From our knowledge, nobody has studied these plants for their antibiotic properties, so we think we may have more chance to find unique molecules.”

Small research labs play key roles in developing new antibiotics that will keep people safe and help to fight the threat of diseases that are immune to current treatments.

Kerneis (right) works with a student in the college's microbiology lab.

“The big pharmaceutical companies are basically not doing this type of research anymore because the return on investment is not very good. It's still very important to get new antibiotics, because bacteria are becoming more and more resistant to the ones that we have,” says Kernéis, which is why she’ll continue to scour the countryside, looking for new plant samples to analyze. “It’s really time consuming and physically demanding, but I think it’s worth it as we need to do our part.”

In addition to helping to cure and prevent infectious diseases, antibiotics are also widely used in food production and cosmetics. Kernéis and DuMontier have trained 15 research students from Lethbridge College, the University of Lethbridge, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta. The lab also collaborates with researchers from the University of Lethbridge and the University of British Columbia, and has received funding from The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the college’s Centre for Applied Research Internal Fund (CARIF).

Dumontier (left) works with a student in the college's microbiology lab.

Industry partners interested in working with the lab are encouraged to contact the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CARIE). CARIE is a catalyst for economic growth, sustainability and social development in the region. It brings together researchers, community organizations and students to collaborate on projects that use new or existing knowledge to solve real-world challenges with immediate practical applications. Lethbridge College has been recognized as one of Canada’s fastest-growing research colleges while earning its highest ever placement in 2020’s annual ranking of Canada’s top 50 research colleges. The college placed 26th on the top 50 list released by Research Infosource and ranked third in research income growth.

Anyone interested in contributing to the discovery of new antibiotics, whether by giving access to private land to collect plant samples, as an industry partner or by making a financial contribution, can contact Kernéis at 403-320-3202 ext. 5655 or at sophie.kerneis@lethbridgecollege.ca.