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Antibiotic-resistance work gets $30,000 prize

Graduate student uses old viruses

Timothy Lu won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Timothy Lu won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
Email|Print| Text size + By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2008

An MIT graduate student has engineered a way to beat resistance to antibiotics by retooling an old infection fighter to work with standard drugs that are losing their effectiveness against potentially fatal diseases.

Timothy Lu, a 27-year-old graduate student at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology who is in his third year at Harvard Medical School, received the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize yesterday for inventing antibacterial agents that can thwart microbes such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which has become impervious to many drugs.

Lu's solution uses bacteriophages, viruses that infect only bacteria. His special versions weaken the bacteria's defense mechanisms by blocking genes in the bacteria that try to pump antibiotics out of the cells or counter any work the antibiotics have done. The bacteriophages also chew through slimy layers of bacteria called biofilms that can form on surfaces of medical devices or food-processing equipment. Biofilms have a natural antibiotic tolerance and are difficult to eradicate.

Bacteriophages were discovered in the early 1900s but were later eclipsed by antibiotics. Lu and his MIT colleagues modified the DNA of bacteriophages by adding enzymes to make them better at penetrating biofilms and disarming bacteria's defenses.

"We wanted to bring in something to enhance the killing ability of antibiotics and extend the lifetime of antibiotics," he said. "By applying our bacteriophage at the same time as the antibiotic, you get a double whammy."

And then some. Lab tests showed that the combination killed 30,000 times more bacteria than antibiotics alone.

The next step for Lu is working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the approach in a clinic, he said.

"Bacteriophages have been around as long as bacteria have," he said. "We try to tell people that this is a modification of what's already there. It's the old and the new."

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