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KU Scientist Snags Another Big Award For Work On Antibiotic Resistance

University of Kansas

A University of Kansas scientist who won a prestigious award last year for her work on antibiotic resistance has chalked up another major achievement. 

The National Institutes of Health announced Thursday morning that it’s awarding nearly $2.3 million to Joanna Slusky and her lab to further their work on combating the problem of antibiotic resistant infections.

Slusky, 38, and her lab are taking a novel approach to the problem. Instead of trying to come up with new antibiotics, their focus is on efflux pumps, or the proteins within bacteria that push out antibiotics as well as toxic substances. The idea is to disable the pumps.

“It can be extremely difficult to make new antibiotics,” Slusky says. “So our goal is to say, ‘Why don't we use the existing arsenal, but make it so that the bacteria are no longer resistant to them?’

“And so the thought is, if we could add this one resistance disrupter, then we could keep using the antibiotics along with the resistance disrupter to prolong the life and utility of existing antibiotics.”

The award Slusky is getting, the NIH New Innovator Award, was established in 2007 and supports “exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects,” according to a description on NIH’s website.

It comes atop an $825,000 fellowshipSlusky received in November from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which was established by the co-founder of Intel Corp. and his wife. Slusky was one of five inaugural recipients of the award, which, like the NIH New Innovator Award, recognizes early career innovators working on projects with potentially high impact.

“The NIH New Innovator Award is among the premier awards available to early-career scientists,” Carl Lejuez, dean of KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, said in a statement. “I know firsthand how strong the competition for this award is. Winning major, highly competitive awards two years in a row is an incredible testament to the value and innovation of Joanna’s research program. Her research is exciting and promises to make significant change in a critical issue.” 

In contrast to the work she’s doing with the Moore money, which focuses on a single type of bacteria, E. coli, Slusky says she plans to use the NIH money to see if her approach will work against a variety of bacteria.

“What I was thinking of doing for this is more expansive,” Slusky says. “This award is giving me the opportunity to say, hey, we have this as a proof of concept for E. coli but not all bacterial infections are E. coli. So would this work for other types of bacterial infections which have similar methods of antibiotic resistance but using slightly different proteins?”

As older medicines become more widely used and microbes evolve to resist them, the supply of new medicines is no longer sufficient to keep up with drug resistance, according to a 2016 report on antimicrobial resistance. The problem has been made worse by the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on patients and animals who don't need them.

Slusky’s lab will receive $1.5 million of the $2.3 million being awarded by NIH. The remainder will go to the university to help support her work.

Slusky says she’ll use the $1.5 million to hire additional people atop the dozen or so working in her lab now and to purchase additional equipment.

“So any post-docs or talented scientists in the area should give me a call if they're interested in doing biochemistry in order to study antibiotic resistance,” she says. “So that's number one. Number two is that I think we'll be getting some new equipment, which will allow the research that we do to proceed at a faster pace.”

Slusky, an assistant professor of computational biology and molecular biosciences, joined the KU faculty in 2014 after completing postdoctoral work at Stockholm University and the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania and her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Princeton University.

Her lab researches how outer membrane proteins fold and is pursuing applications for cancer therapeutics, vaccine development and environmental remediation.

Antibiotic resistant infections have become a pervasive health problem, with an estimated 700,000 people wordwide dying every year from them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saysthat at least 2 million people in the United States become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria every year and at least 23,000 die as a result. Some studies project that, if current trends continue, by 2050 more people in the United States will die from such infections than from cancer.

Slusky figures her work on disabling efflux pumps may take as many as 20 years before it begins to bear fruit and actually save lives.

“I would hope 20 years or a little less than 20 years,” she says. “But it’s a long timeline.”

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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