Research on probiotics to prevent otitis media in Aboriginal children hopes to ‘close the gap’

Feb 19, 2016

Dr Andrea Coleman’s diverse career as a speech pathologist and now a Resident Medical Officer, has taken another exceptional turn after she received a part-time Avant Doctor in Training Research Scholarship 2015 to carry out new research which aims to prevent otitis media in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Move from speech pathology to medicine   

Her decision to transition from speech pathology to medicine has paid off as she embarks on the two-phase prospective cross-sectional study as part of her PhD at The University of Queensland.

Dr Coleman, 31, (pictured) who commenced an internship at The Townsville Hospital in Queensland last year after completing a Doctorate of Medicine at Griffith University in Queensland, vividly recalls the moment she decided to become a doctor.

“I was in a multidisciplinary meeting and the doctors were doing their thing and I thought ‘ah, that job is way better than my job,’ she confides.    

The two disciplines have provided a unique background for her research and it was while she was undertaking a two-year stint as a speech pathologist with the Deadly Ears Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Ear Health Program that she witnessed the impact of ear disease in Aboriginal children first-hand.

Aboriginal children have highest rates of ear disease in the world    

“Aboriginal kids in Australia have the worst rates of ear disease in the entire world,” she says. “The impacts are far-reaching because otitis media often results in conductive hearing loss and can have significant effects on speech and language development, and subsequently educational and employment outcomes.” 

However, despite a plethora of public health strategies and medical and surgical treatment options for otitis media in Aboriginal children, Dr Coleman says the burden of disease remains substantial, warranting a novel approach.

Promising results lead to exploration of probiotic use     

The genesis of the research project followed promising results from several studies investigating the use of probiotics in otitis media via recolonization of nasal passages using the strains of the bacteria alpha-haemolytic streptococci, often found in the nose and throat of healthy people. 

“Both methods showed promise in their ability to reduce the rate of otitis media in children prone to otitis media, however this research is in its infancy and no one has explored the use of probiotics in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” she says.

Dr Coleman decided to commence the research project after meeting with her principal supervisor and mentor, Anders Cervin, Professor of Otolaryngology, University of Queensland and a staff specialist in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery, Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital, to discuss research project ideas.  

“I was just walking out the door and he said ‘Hang on, I have an idea’” she recalls. “I sat back down, listened to the idea and said ‘I know how to make that work.’”

A new solution for an old problem   

The first phase of the study will investigate the microorganisms found in 80 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged two to seven years recruited from the Deadly Ears ‘ENT Walkin’ Country’ Outreach Service and local health and educational services. The study will compare swabs collected from the nose, oral cavity and tonsils of otitis media-prone children with non-otitis media-prone children. Clinical history and demographic information will also be obtained for each group based on interviews with the parent/guardian of the child and their medical records.

“The second phase of the study will analyse the potential of microorganisms found in children who are not prone to otitis media, to inhibit the growth of otitis media pathogens,” Dr Coleman says. “From there our long term dream would be to make a collection of good bacteria strains into a probiotic that you can use from infancy to stop the otitis media pathogens from recolonising in the upper airways of Aboriginal children to see if we can reduce otitis media.”

“Probiotics provide a low-cost, safe alternative to the existing and often futile treatments for Aboriginal children,” she says. “This simple treatment may provide a new solution to this refractory problem and help close the long-standing socio-economic and health gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.” 

Scholarships supports next generation of translational researchers 

With a view to releasing preliminary results from phase 1 this year, Dr Coleman believes the Avant Doctor in Training Research Scholarships are crucial in developing translational researchers.

“We always need to be developing new and better ways to treat and prevent illness and the most pivotal people to advance those ideas are clinicians because they see what needs are required and how that can be sensibly implemented,” she says. “The Avant scholarships are key in growing this next generation of translational researchers.”   

On a personal level, Dr Coleman says the scholarship has made a significant difference to her life and will deliver essential funding to the research project which she has been working on voluntarily for the past two years.  “I had just spent 1000 dollars on an otoscope and I didn’t even have the money in there – then I got the phone call telling me that I had won an Avant scholarship,” she says. “The scholarship will also allow me to buy equipment and flights and accommodation in Brisbane so that I can meet with the project team and work in the lab.”

Does your research deserve funding? 

Applications for the 2016 Avant Doctor in Training Research Scholarship Program are open. Twenty-two scholarships are available – more than any other year to date – worth $450,000, for both emerging and experienced researchers. 

Apply online on the Avant website or for more information download our Doctor in Training Research Scholarship Information Pack.

If you have any questions, please contact the Doctor in Training Research Scholarship team at close 31 May 2016.

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