Qassim UniversityPioneering research in infectious disease management

Pioneering research in infectious disease management

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed more focus than ever on how infectious diseases spread. Qassim University scientists are at the forefront of urgent research into the prevention and management of infectious diseases

About 70 per cent of infectious diseases that have emerged over the past 30 years are zoonotic, meaning they were caused by germs that spread between animals and people. It is well documented that Covid-19 may have originated from an animal, and some estimates suggest that there are about 700,000 more zoonotic diseases we don’t know about, so research into this area is crucial.

As well as zoonotic diseases, nosocomial infections – infections acquired in hospital – are creating challenges for the healthcare sector. “Nosocomial infection is one of the most common in our hospitals,” says Osamah Alrugaie, associate professor of molecular medicine and medical microbiology at Qassim University. “Bacteria can enter the catheter, meaning patients develop urinary tract infections and must stay in hospital longer.”

The Deanship for Scientific Research at Qassim University in Saudi Arabia lists the management of infectious diseases as one of its key strategic priorities. It is also an issue of national importance, because the spread of viral and bacterial diseases has had a significant effect on the national economy and public health in the kingdom.

One of the focuses of Qassim’s research is to design and experiment with a range of nanoparticles that can prevent and reduce bacterial activity in healthcare facilities, as well as developing alternative diagnostic methods to diagnose these infections faster. Qassim is one of only two universities in Saudi Arabia that have veterinary and medical colleges looking at novel ways infectious disease transmission can be minimised.

The department is also looking into the production of beta-lactamase, a bacterial enzyme that can become resistant to antibiotics, to assist in its research into vaccines and virus prevention. The emergence of drug-resistant bacteria is a growing challenge in the management of infectious diseases, so this research is central to the public health agenda.

Qassim’s work in this area is supported across a number of university departments, alongside work with national partners such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and international collaborations with the University of Essex and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK.

A recent highlight has been Qassim’s joint work with vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, head of the Oxford University team behind the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine. “We took part in the Rift Valley Fever Virus Vaccine Study project and the MERS vaccine project in cooperation with the Ministry of National Guard to test the vaccine on camels as Qassim is an agricultural region with the biggest camel market in the world,” says Musaad Aldubaib, professor of virology in the department of veterinary medicine at Qassim.

Saudi Arabia has an increasing reliance on camels because of their ability to cope with droughts. Camels are notorious carriers of the MERS virus, meaning the likelihood of viruses spreading to humans is significant. 

New technologies and approaches are crucial to controlling infectious diseases, explains Ayman Elbehiry, professor of microbiology in the College of Public Health at Qassim University. His work with Aldubaib has focused on the early detection of zoonotic brucellosis caused by the Brucella species in animals and humans. “We are using modern technologies such as mass spectrometry and principal component analysis created by Compass software stored in the MALDI Biotyper device to identify the different species of Brucella,” Elbehiry says. “Multidrug resistance of Brucella species, especially Brucella melitensis, is an urgent matter today, so we are using nanoparticles as an alternative method of antibiotics.”

Another scientific group at Qassim University is working to develop urine catheters. Once bacteria colonises the surface of a catheter it tends to form a biofilm, making it difficult to treat with usual antibiotics. Qassim’s researchers are investigating the development of anti-biofilm catheters that stop bacterial colonisation. The aim of the project is to formulate nano-leachable antibiofilm and antibacterial cationic film polymers that coat tubular silicone catheter surfaces by reducing the agent’s internal surface. The coating materials will be polymers or metallic nanoparticles such as silver, gold and zinc nanoparticles.

Facilitating research into the management of infectious diseases will help scientists achieve Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. One of the key pillars of the kingdom’s strategic plan is to create a vibrant society by ensuring there is a comprehensive public health system and focus on disease prevention.

Qassim’s priorities in this area include generating peer-reviewed research that will increase the number of research citations from the kingdom in this area. “Infectious disease is one of the most problematic things we face,” concludes Alrugaie. “This is a priority not just for our region but for the whole world. If we work on infection management, this improves our quality of life.”

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