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Winner of the 2017 Nils Foss Excellence Prize

20. Nov, 2017
From petri dish to super computer: Meet Frank M. Aarestrup, winner of the 2017 Nils Foss Excellence Prize
 Frank M. Aarestrup

It is with pride that FOSS, on 20 November, awarded the 2017 Nils Foss Excellence Prize to Frank M. Aarestrup, Professor, Head of Research Group, National Food Institute at Technical University of Denmark. 

 

 

One of Frank M. Aarestrup’s most important contributions has been to map out and prove that the use of antibiotics for animals actually has consequences and that we can do something about it by reducing the amount of antibiotics. With a background as a veterinarian, Frank M. Aarestrup started his work in the laboratory, researching bacteria in mastitis, and his journey has then taken him to the area of antimicrobial resistance and the spread of infectious diseases on a global scale.

Currently working with building a global framework for surveillance of infectious diseases, Frank M. Aarestrup is making a true impact on global food safety and human health.  

 

From petri dish to super computer 
As a young man fresh out of high school, Frank wanted to become a chemical engineer. But, the life in Jutland’s countryside, and the feeling that he would want to return there to work, let him to become a veterinarian instead. This way, his work would allow him to stay close to home but still keep his options open. Little did he know that his work would lead him far away from his initial plan. 

As a veterinarian, Frank discovered that his immediate interest was more in the way of analysis than the direct contact and treatment of animals. In particular, the area of immunology and the host’s resistance against infections sparked his interest. In the latter part of his study, Frank worked with the creation and analysis of data within the area of mastitis and cell count in cows. This work brought him into contact with a team working with mastitis and this became the subject for his final project in 1992, supervised by Henrik Wegener, who is now rector at Copenhagen University.  

Enter: the Fossomatic 

Next logical step for Frank was a PhD at the National Veterinary Serum Laboratory (now merged with DTU). 

On his first day, he arrived on his bike, got off, and got to his first task: helping a team of people manoeuvre an old (and heavy!) Fossomatic into the building’s basement. At the time (in 1992), the machine was already around 20-30 years old but was fully functional and highly valued by the team working with it. The meeting with this old Fossomatic became the starting point of a study in bacterial genetics, especially with relation to clonal structure within the area of bacteria.  

After a time, his studies brought Frank to the U.S. In Pennsylvania, he started studying staphylococci in connection with mastitis, and lo and behold, he ran into the Fossomatic once more. This time a large number of new machines working full-time to generate data for determining milk quality but also data for the research conducted there.  


Uncovering resistance 
In 1995, the PhD was complete, and funding secured to continue the mastitis research on the comparison of bacteria across countries and the host-pathogen interactions. However, in late 1994 a team of German scientists had contacted Frank because they were doing research on resistance towards a specific antibiotic that was being used in growth promoters in feed. On January 25, 1995, Frank and the team also found resistance among Danish food animals to the growth promoting additives that many farmers were giving their livestock. This discovery led to a thorough investigation of that given antibiotic providing the basis for banning it. Banning an additive so widely used by the industry is no easy task, or a popular quest for that matter.  

And throughout the years, Frank has experienced what it’s like to stand in the front line of science; he has tried being sought out at his home address, excluded from conferences by physical man-to-man marking by representatives of the antibiotic producers, and has experienced heavy resistance from various political organs. 

But, to Frank, proving and telling the truth has always taken priority. To stand up to what you believe in, no matter who is in front of you. 

Bacteria travels regardless of borders 
During his years of research, focus has changed from mastitis and bacteria cells to the area of antibiotic resistance. The latter had some very acute problem areas that needed identifying and solving, but Frank expects that he will return to the area of mastitis at some point – it was his first area of scientific interest and there is still much more to be uncovered.  

Right now, focus is on microbiology and epidemiology – how bacteria spreads on a global scale. Bacteria do not respect traditional borders and a problem in one country can quickly become a problem in all countries. We travel more and we trade more in modern day society – we are a part of a bigger world, and the area of food safety and human health is much more relevant today than it has been previously.  

And, if you ask Frank what the most important thing we can learn from the research we have now, he will likely say data sharing. Everything is connected through microbiology and the access to relevant data across the globe is crucial in order to solve our problems most efficiently. Needs change and the approach to research must change with them, in order to meet the needs of a fast increasing globalisation.  

He is currently working on building a global framework for surveillance of infectious diseases on a global scale and the ambition is to be able to monitor up to 50% of the world’s population. This requires very large and functional IT-infrastructures, which right now is the main focus.