Pathologist wins Packard Foundation Fellowship for research into 'good' bacteria

November 7th, 2013
Bacteria have a bad reputation, but University of Utah pathologist June L. Round, Ph.D., likes to look at their good side–and for the second time this year she's received a prestigious national award to aid her research into bacteria that actually are good for human health.

Round, an assistant professor of pathology who studies the role of commensal bacteria – microbes that colonize the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract by the trillions and are increasingly shown to provide health benefits – has been named among 16 of the nation's "most innovative young scientists and engineers" in the 2013 Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering program. Awarded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, each fellowship comes with $875,000, given over five years. Round will use her award to research ways to kill "bad" bacteria in the gut while keeping commensal bacteria intact.

"The Packard Foundation believes deeply in the power of science and engineering research and is delighted to support these creative, young scientists," Lynn Orr, Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor at Stanford University, and chairman of the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel said in a statement. "Their independent, exploratory research will generate new knowledge, spark fresh thinking and produce ideas that can improve the human condition."

When foreign pathogens attack the human body, the immune system ramps up a defense to destroy the invaders through inflammation, white blood cells and other means. Yet, the immune system allows commensal bacteria, also called microbiota, to colonize and thrive in the GI tract. It's been unknown why the immune system let microbiota persist, but the reason is becoming clearer as researchers find evidence that commensal bacteria benefit human health. In her prior research Round, for example, showed that the commensal microbe Bacteriodes fragiles, confers protection from inflammatory diseases when it colonizes in a host organism.

Although the immune system lets commensal bacteria live, antibiotics are not as kind, and when humans take them to kill bad bacteria the drugs also kill microbiota. "When this happens, we not only lose the beneficial effects of those organisms, but often the good bacteria can be replaced with bad ones that predispose to other diseases," Round says. "I'm going to use the Packard Foundation's generous award for a project to develop more specific ways to kill bad bacteria while allowing good bacteria to live. To do this we are going to exploit immune mechanisms our body uses to distinguish between good and bad organisms."

In June, her research into commensal bacteria earned Round another prestigious honor when she was named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. She is using the $240,000, four-year award to investigate whether toll-like receptors (TLRs), which are proteins that play a key role in the immune system by recognizing foreign microbes, help make a host organism tolerant to microbiota by sending signals to immune cells.

As part of her research, Round will transplant specific commensal bacteria into germ-free mice to investigate how TLR signaling influences immune system signaling and the structure of commensal microbes.

Provided by University of Utah Health Sciences

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