Mass. Eye and Ear receives $11 million to study resistant bacteria

A team of Harvard researchers is collaborating to examine what makes some bacteria resistant to antibiotics and developing new drugs aimed at controlling bacterial infections, such as those from Staphylococcus aureus.

Dr. Michael S. Gilmore of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary will lead the five-year project. The hospital announced today that the effort has earned it the largest grant in its 187-year history, $11 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Gilmore’s team includes researchers from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and drug developers from Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington and Maryland-based MedImmune.

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Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

“Infections from multidrug-resistant bacteria are leading complications of surgeries, from cataract extractions to knee replacements. Understanding how resistance develops in these strains will help guide the judicious and effective use of antibiotics, and the development of new treatments that will benefit patients and reduce health care spending,” said Joan W. Miller, M.D., Henry Willard Williams Professor of Ophthalmology, Chief of Ophthalmology at Mass Eye and Ear and Mass General Hospital, and Chair of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.

Since 2005, drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus has killed more people in the United States than HIV/AIDS, and it has become a leading public health concern. Because resistant staph infections are spread by hand-to-hand contact, workout facilities now provide hand sanitizers and routinely sanitize equipment. An outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection among the St. Louis Rams brought the problem into sharp public focus.

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Dr. Gilmore recruited a team of investigators from across the Harvard University landscape, and also from industry, to tackle the problem of developing new drugs to treat these infections. Massachusetts General Hospital scientists and physicians Drs. Eleftherios Mylonakis, Fred Ausubel, and David Hooper are pursuing new strategies for discovering and testing drugs using model systems. Harvard Medical School professors Drs. Suzanne Walker and Roberto Kolter are using high-throughput robotics to identify potential drugs that target the bacterial cell surface, and its organization. Dr. Kolter and Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science professor Dr. Richard Losick are exploring new approaches for disorganizing bacterial biofilms, making the microbes easier to treat with new and existing antibiotics. Dr. Keeta Gilmore is responsible for coordinating the moving parts, and for cultivating an atmosphere that promotes synergy between projects. This group converges twice monthly at the Mass. Eye and Ear to discuss progress and to coordinate activities.

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