Researcher tackles global challenges of antimicrobial resistance

Idowu Olawoye is a postdoctoral research associate at Schulich School of Medicin
Idowu Olawoye is a postdoctoral research associate at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, studying antimicrobial resistance. (Megan Morris/Schulich Medicine & Dentistry)
It’s being called the ’post-antibiotic’ era, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics caused by overuse has led to the proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria spread through human travel and poor sanitation practices, the WHO said in a recent report.

It’s a challenge Schulich Medicine & Dentistry postdoctoral research associate Idowu Olawoye is tackling with next generation DNA sequencing tools and artificial intelligence (AI).

"We live in a global village," said the bioinformatician with a background in microbiology and expertise in the genetic makeup of disease-causing microorganisms.

"People carry infections from one end of the world to the other. As one of my mentors used to say, ’Pathogens don’t need visas.’"

But they do replicate and develop resistance very quickly, he added.

"If we don’t address this issue, we’re going to have emergency rooms full of people who won’t respond to treatment. We have to try and beat the bacteria at their own game. We have to be one step ahead of them." - Idowu Olawoye, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry postdoctoral research associate

While it’s going to be a tough race, Olawoye is confident in the approach he is using to meet the challenge. The early career microbiologist is one of 43 recipients of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Research Excellence, Diversity, and Independence Early Career Transition Award given to postdoctoral researchers, clinicians, and research associates from specific underrepresented groups to help them launch their research faculty careers in Canada.

The honour comes with $660,000 in funding over six years.

AI and other tools

Mycoplasma genitalium is obscure. It takes weeks or months to grow in the laboratory, and due to its unique biology, it is naturally resistant to many commonly used antibiotics.

But the sexually transmitted bacterium is Olawoye’s pathway to finding some of the answers to the pressing global concerns of antimicrobial resistance.

"M. genitalium is understudied and yet it’s a problem in marginalized populations where they don’t have access to health care," he said. "I want to develop prevention and treatment strategies for M. genitalium infections to improve health equity in under-represented populations with a higher prevalence."

Idowu Olawoye designs algorithms to pinpoint molecules that can help treat drug-resistant bacteria. (Megan Morris/Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry) That means developing new and more efficient diagnostic methods directly from clinical specimens that reduce the burden of illness and the stigma associated with this disease.

"We’re trying to isolate the bacteria without needing to grow it in the lab," he said. "We can then see what genes are associated with resistance and develop faster, more accurate treatments."

This is where AI comes in.

Olawoye will gather data on the genetic structure of the bacteria and "train" algorithms to find the molecules that are effective against drug-resistant bacteria. This approach accelerates the identification of potential targets for effective drug therapy against mycoplasma genitalium and other bacterial pathogens.

"AI lets you analyze thousands of molecules in minutes or hours to see if they are a potential candidate for treating a particular disease instead of experimenting in the lab where it would take months."

A lifelong fascination

Olawoye’s journey has always been motivated by the mysteries of the antimicrobial system.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Bowen University in Nigeria, Olawoye moved to the United Kingdom to complete a Master’s degree in biotechnology at the University of Bedfordshire. He returned to Nigeria to complete his PhD in molecular biology and genomics at Redeemer’s University before coming to Canada to connect with family. He soon joined Jennifer Guthrie’s lab at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

"Coming from Nigeria where tuberculosis is endemic was a major factor in gaining an interest in M. genitalium," Olawoye said.

"This led to the desire to find innovative solutions to reduce the amount of time patients waited for a diagnosis."

Setting up for the future

Olawoye is no stranger to awards. In December 2023, he was named a Western Postdoctoral Fellowship Program Scholar for his contributions to research excellence at the university.

"It’s an honour to receive this because it is a very competitive field," he said.

"This helps me train and mentor students as well as do cool science. I’m really excited about the future and seeing where this takes my interest in antimicrobial resistance and what kinds of things we’re going to be able to discover."