Dr. Jay’s laboratory has been working in the area of Southern California water quality for over a decade, and more recently, we have been focused on the area of antibiotic resistant bacteria –commonly referred to as “superbugs” – in the environment. Rising levels of superbugs are a critical public health problem worldwide, with current superbug related deaths accounting for at least 700,000 lives lost per year.
Recently our laboratory has been screening for two different antibiotic resistant (AR) pathogens in some local surfing beaches, including Venice Beach. Specifically, we have detected MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), both of which are categorized as Serious Threats by the Centers for Disease Control. We have seen widely differing levels from beach to beach, and we are interested in how these and other pathogens may be affecting surfer health. Surfers are an ideal population for evaluating the relationship between environmental exposure and ARB and ARG colonization. Surfing involves a high frequency of submerging your head underwater for extended periods of times. Surfers are in the ocean year-round, particularly in the winter when storms occur, resulting in poor water quality due to urban stormwater contaminants.
We are partnering with Surfrider, Heal the Bay, and USC Sea Grant to continue monitoring pathogens at these beaches and take nasal swab samples from a group of surfers and a non-surfing control group to look at how these antibiotic-resistant organisms colonize humans. This experimental design is a promising way to get data showing infection due to an environmental exposure of an antibiotic resistant organism. We will sample at regular time points and adaptively in response to storm events and the appearance of AR pathogens.
We are very fortunate to have a team of committed students and volunteers that will compose the manpower needed to conduct this project. We have dedicated field teams that will be out taking nasal and water samples throughout the winter at several beaches, multiple times a week. We have laboratory teams that will extract and amplify resistance genes, and culture antibiotic resistant bacteria. However, we are in desperate need of lab supplies. We currently have funding to have 80 participants, and analyze for MRSA as well as three antibiotic resistance genes. With an additional $5K, we would also be able to analyze for vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), which we also measured at our beach survey, and we would be able to increase the number of participants.
The results of this important study will help us protect the health of surfers and other ocean swimmers. In addition, this work addresses the issue of rising antibiotic resistance, which has been increasingly recognized as one of foremost health challenges of the next generation. We hope to better understand the effects of environmental levels of "superbugs" and their genes on the human microbiome. This work could help reduce the use of antibiotics when they are not necessary, such as for animal growth promotion.