Undergraduate research: In search of non-antibiotic treatments
A microorganism that causes the holes in Swiss cheese could be the key to an effective non-antibiotic treatment for acne.
Microbiology major Renee Holland interned at Procter & Gamble
In the microbiology laboratory of Assistant Professor Jeremy Tzeng, undergraduate students are helping to pursue that possibility, along with other alternatives to the use of antibiotics for preventing and treating infections.
Renee Holland, a recent graduate who started working in Tzeng's lab as a freshman, researched the acne-Swiss cheese connection.
Often bacteria will produce antimicrobial peptides to kill closely related, competing bacteria," said Holland, who graduated in December 2008 and now works as a microbiologist for Procter & Gamble.
It happens that the bacterium known as Propionibacterium jensenii, which is responsible for the fermentation that gives Swiss cheese its distinctive holes, can produce just such a weapon against Propionibacterium acnes, the culprit in blackheads and whiteheads.
By her senior year, Holland was capable of independent laboratory study, Tzeng said. One of her research projects involved characterizing different strains of P. jensenii to assess which one is most potent against the acne bacteria, and manipulating the gene that produces the peptide.
The use of narrow -spectrum antimicrobial peptides for the treatment of infections is one of five areas of research being pursued by Tzeng and his team of undergraduate and graduate students, all under the umbrella of "Non-antibiotic Approaches to the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases."
The array of potential applications is impressive, from self-sterilizing surfaces (a photocatalytic approach to killing pathogens) to nano-particles and nano-devices for detecting pathogens, physically purging targeted pathogens, and delivering drugs to their targets. Plant-derived nutraceuticals are being explored for their antimicrobial and antitumor characteristics.
As diverse as they might seem, the research initiatives all have a common goal: to replace or supplement antibiotic therapies.
The challenge that we are facing is microorganisms that have become resistant to multiple drugs, and we also have cancer cells that are resistant to multiple drugs," Tzeng said. "So we are trying to develop different approaches, to see if we can find ways to either enhance or complement the antimicrobial or anticancer drugs, so that we can reduce the effective dose, or whether we can develop technology that can displace the antibiotics."
In each of the five research areas, Tzeng pairs an undergraduate student with at least one graduate student (his team includes five Ph.D. students, one master's student and one research technician).
Holland, a Seneca, S.C., native, got involved during her second semester at Clemson. Her hands-on research experience led to a seven-month co-op with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati in 2007, and she was invited back for another co-op the summer before her final semester as a Clemson undergraduate.
She now works in P&G's Microbiology Capability Organization (MCO).
As a sophomore, Holland presented some of her team's research results at a general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology — a rare experience for an undergrad.
I highly recommend to anyone interested in scientific research that they get started on it early, because that can open a lot of doors and give you experience that a lot of people won't have," Holland said.
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