New data ‘powerhouse’ at SFU to combat drug-resistant superbugs

A new data powerhouse at Simon Fraser University will bring together researchers to better understand and combat drug-resistant superbugs.

The university officially opened the new Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute, or CANSSI, headquarters at the Burnaby campus on Friday.

The new CANSSI headquarters, at SFU’s Big Data Hub, is described by university staff as a “statistical and data science powerhouse” for researchers studying everything from climate change to healthcare, and even the growing field of sports analytics.

So far, CANSSI has been operating as a virtual institute, but the new headquarters at SFU will allow the researchers to work together in person to study the data and find solutions.

It will also be used by researchers studying the emerging threat of drug-resistant infectious diseases.

SFU researcher Leonid Chindelevitch, a computer science professor and CANSSI research team leader, says drug-resistant diseases, or superbugs, pose a very serious threat to humans around the world.

Bacteria are a major source of infections, and some are developing drug resistance, a phenomenon by which bacteria, when exposed to a drug over time, are able to adapt and find ways to bypass the drug so that it no longer kills them, he said.

“This is a growing problem world-wide. It is a substantial concern. We are now seeing some infections, because of the so-called superbugs, which are untouchable by most of the drugs we have,” he said.

Chindelevitch said one problem that needs to be addressed is that the drugs being used to fight the superbugs are from the same classes that existed before.

“That means that we are not challenging the bacteria as we should be by throwing something different at them. We are not finding new drug classes. We are just modifying what we have to  make them a little better.”

SFU researcher Leonid Chindelevitch.

Chindelevitch, along with collaborators, studies the variations in the bacteria genomes that lead to resistance. Then they analyze the data to identify specific mutations that are responsible for the resistance to the drugs.

He said while the new data hub at SFU will help teams collaborate, he admitted they are a long way off from solving the problem.

“I would say we are still far from being adequately able to address this emerging threat that these superbugs represent,” he said. “More funding, more research is going to be needed.”

If nothing changes it is projected that by 2050 the number deaths from drug-resistant infectious diseases will surpass the number of fatalities from cancer, and diabetes combined.

“It’s not an immediate threat, but it is a ticking time bomb,” he said.

ticrawford@postmedia.com

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