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

This Phys.org Science News Wire page contains a press release issued by an organization mentioned above and is provided to you “as is” with little or no review from Phys.Org staff.

More news stories

Birth of a radio phoenix

Abell 1033 is a cluster of over 350 galaxies located about 1.7 billion light-years away. Collisions between galaxies in clusters are common events, and each merger heats and shocks the nearby gas. The rapidly ...

Micromotors for energy generation

Hydrogen is considered to be the energy source of the future: the first vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are already on the market. However, the problem of hydrogen storage has not been solved in a ...

Flood disaster risk is more complex than expected

Research from the University of Adelaide has shed further light on the complex issue of flood risk, with the latest findings showing the potential for flood risk to both increase and decrease in the same ...

Sunfire, Audi en route to synthetic fuel of future

How are scientific minds doing in coming up with a synthetic fuel as a viable alternative to petroleum? For some engineers, this is a long-held dream they refuse to dismiss. A Dresden-based company, sunfire, ...

Intertwining of superconductivity and magnetism

Inelastic neutron scattering experiments on a copper-oxide superconductor reveal nearly static, spatially modulated magnetism. Because static magnetism and superconductivity do not like to coexist in the ...