Spotlight on sepsis

Posted on: 3 October 2022 in October 2022 Posts

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This edition of Spotlight focuses on Dr Howbeer Muhamad-Ali from the Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Systems Biology. Howbeer is a Tenure Track Fellow and his research group focuses on the applications of molecular imaging and metabolomics techniques for understanding antimicrobial resistance (AMR) at single cell and community (biofilm) levels.


Sepsis is a very serious illness that is caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to an infection, which damages our organs and tissues. Every year it causes up to six million deaths worldwide, and whilst it can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early enough, many sufferers will experience permanent and life-changing impacts.

Our research

Dr Howbeer Muhamad-Ali and his team are undertaking metabolomic research (the study of small molecules within cells, tissues, biofluids or organisms), focussing on how the metabolic profile of sepsis patients change in response to different antibiotic treatment strategies. The findings of this study could be used as an indicator of the success of sepsis treatment, a potentially life-threatening disease. They are also working to improve the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment on biofilms, a major challenge for treating microbial infections and a driver of antimicrobial resistance.

“I have personal experience of sepsis. My father was very ill with the condition in hospital but luckily he survived, many people are not so fortunate” said Dr Muhamad-Ali. “Currently patients taken to critical care with suspected sepsis are given treatment straight away before the results of microbiological analysis to determine the type of bacteria. Initial antibiotic treatments are usually modified once the results are available, which may lead to an escalation or de-escalation of treatment. However, due to the inherent quality and diverse content of sepsis and lack of gold standard diagnostic techniques, escalation of the antibiotic treatment is usually initiated when clinical deterioration has already occurred.” 

Monitoring treatments through metabolites

Working in partnership with Professors Enitan Carrol at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and Roy Goodacre of the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Metabolomics Research, Dr Muhamad-Ali and his team hope to identify metabolites (small molecules) that can be used as biomarkers to monitor clinical improvements in patients, and their response to treatment before deterioration. 

Identifying these markers, or in this case metabolites, may allow for earlier detection of response or lack of response to antibiotics, allowing doctors to change to more appropriate ones before deterioration occurs, ultimately reducing complications and saving lives. Jointly funded by the Wellcome Institutional Translational Partnership Award (ITPA) and the University of Liverpool’s Health and Life Sciences Translational Research Access Programme (TRAP Awards), the research will enable preliminary findings over two years with the aim of securing a longer-term grant.

Centre for Metabolomics Research (CMR)

Dr Muhamad-Ali, added: “At the Centre for Metabolomics Research (CMR) we have state-of-the-art metabolomics facilities including mass spectrometry and spectroscopy imaging equipment, combined with the all-important multidisciplinary expertise on one site which makes us well-placed to carry out impactful research like this. One of the main advantages of metabolomics is that it is generally employed as a data-driven approach (inductive research), rather than theory-driven science which tries to validate existing theories.”

“This allows us to carry out untargeted analytical research and look into problems that have real impacts on how we live worldwide. Through partnerships with the NHS, pharmaceutical companies and private companies we’re able to work together to find solutions from saving lives to making the production of food and other industrially valuable products more efficient and economical.” 

Anyone interested in collaborating with the Metabolomics team within the Microbiome Innovation Centre or accessing the University’s world-leading equipment can find out more here.