INNOVATION

A Women's Fertility Researcher Discovers A Key To Saving Koalas

Chlamydia is the fourth largest killer of koalas but a new treatment is on its way.

02/09/2016 1:12 PM AEST | Updated September 4, 2016 12:14
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Koalas need our help.

With a career focusing on women's reproduction and diseases, Willa Huston did not expect to lead a team generating one of the last great hopes for koalas.

Yet the University of Technology Sydney senior lecturer has found herself busily culturing koala cells in a lab, and becoming passionate about the native animal's ongoing survival.

The collection between reproductive disease and koalas is chlamydia.

Yuriko Nakao / Reuters
The next generation of koalas is looking brighter.

The bacteria can cause scarring, infertility, blindness and in extreme cases, death for both humans and koalas, but Huston said they were slightly different strains.

"I've been working on female diseases and treatment and chlamydia for quite a few years and we had this molecule that we were interested in exploring its potential uses," Huston said.

"Then we heard from our colleagues there was a need for it in koalas. While I was well aware chlamydia and koalas was an issue, I was not aware there were issues with the supply of medications and those medicines themselves weren't very good."

The situation is actually dire for chlamydia infected koalas.

It's estimated to be the fourth biggest killer of koalas and of the two antibiotics that can clear the bacterial infection in some cases, one has been discontinued. There's a two-year supply left.

"Time is running out. We all treasure our koalas and we need to do everything we can to cure this disease," Huston said.

The compound discovered in Huston's lab has been shown to attack bacteria but have little effect on koala cells. She said the next step was to make the molecule more effective at lower doses and embark on testing it on koalas.

"With a short supply of antibiotics in the future, we feel this molecule could have broad implications," Huston said.

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