Professor Mark Willcox
University of New South Wales
4 November 2020

Professor Mark Willcox from the University of New South Wales received the Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award at this year’s NHMRC Research Excellence Awards. Professor Willcox’s research targets hospital-acquired infections. Half of all hospital-acquired infections are from microbial colonisation of medical devices such as catheters and hip replacements. Professor Willcox and his team are developing new antimicrobial coatings that can be applied to medical devices to reduce the incidence of these infections. 

Professor Willcox says that currently the only way of treating medical device-related infections is removal. However, replacement of infected devices can sometimes be difficult which can lead to significant morbidity and mortality, with substantial costs to the health system.

Professor Willcox quotes the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care which reported that in 2015–16, 60,037 hospital-acquired infections were diagnosed in Australian public hospitals, affecting one in every 74 hospitalisations. Each hospitalisation involving a hospital-acquired infection resulted in $33,184 in extra costs.

Professor Willcox is a medical microbiologist who has worked for many years in the area of infections of medical devices and is director of research at the UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science.

“The microbes causing these infections grow on surfaces in communities called biofilms which make them resistant to the action of our immune systems and antimicrobial agents,” he says

“We have developed antimicrobials to control this that are effective in clinical trials. However, they can be degraded and don’t provide life-long protection.”

At UNSW, Professor Willcox’s team has developed new techniques to quantify individual proteins and lipids that adsorb onto contact lenses. The team has developed several novel antimicrobials that can be applied to the surfaces of medical devices. This includes a patented antimicrobial peptide that has been tested rigorously in laboratory, pre-clinical and up to Phase III clinical trials.

The clinical trials tested antimicrobial contact lenses and demonstrated that they could reduce by 50% the incidence of bacterially-related adverse events.

“NHMRC funding allows us the freedom to perform basic and applied research to develop novel stable antimicrobial coatings for medical devices.

“Longer term, antimicrobial functionality for medical devices will have a major impact on their success and the health of patients, as well as providing substantial cost savings to our hospitals and healthcare facilities.

“Our newly developed coatings will be patented. This allows us to engage with prospective industry partners to licence and further develop our Intellectual Property.

“This may result in substantial returns on investment, which can be reinvested in research and provide jobs for research scientists and clinicians.”

Professor Willcox aims to: 

  1. Develop novel antimicrobial agents, based upon his previous research, that are stable and can be coated onto medical devices
  2. Characterise the surface chemistry and antimicrobial action of these bound antimicrobials
  3. Test the ability of medical devices coated with these antimicrobials to reduce infection in clinically relevant models.

Professor Willcox says he was pleasantly surprised to receive the Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award for the highest ranked Ideas Grant application in 2019, “Receiving the award was one thing, but finding out that it was the highest scoring grant, as reviewed by my peers, was almost unbelievable.”

He offers some wise advice to any researcher submitting their grant applications and particularly early career researchers.

“Don't lose the fire! My successful Ideas Grant was submitted four times before it was awarded – but it improved each time as we took note of reviewers’ comments and had it reviewed by colleagues.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new infectious challenge. Whilst Australia has done extremely well in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic within its borders to date, the battle is far from over.

Professor Willcox has been awarded a UNSW Rapid Response Research grant to investigate what effect these novel antimicrobials might have against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including whether they might be useful in disinfecting PPE.

“But we also mustn’t lose sight of other looming problems – global warming and antimicrobial resistance to name just two,” he adds.

“The only way we can get through this is working together as a global community to make the changes needed to tackle those issues.”