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NIH recognizes professor’s innovative antibiotics research with $2.3M award

Thursday, October 05, 2017

LAWRENCE – The National Institutes of Health have granted a major award to University of Kansas researcher Joanna Slusky to further her novel approach to combating antibiotic resistance.

The NIH announced today the recipients of its prestigious Director’s Awards, given to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research. Slusky, assistant professor of molecular biosciences and computational biology, received the New Innovator Award, totaling nearly $2.3 million, designated for advancing unusually innovative research from early career investigators.

Slusky’s invention is a protein that will resensitize bacteria to common antibiotics, thereby overcoming drug-resistant superbugs. Her invention could have a global effect on antibiotic resistance and re-establish the efficacy of antibiotics.

This is the second major innovation award for Slusky in as many years. Last year, she was selected as one of the five inaugural Moore Inventor Fellows. The Moore fellowship program recognizes early-career innovators at U.S. universities with a high potential to accelerate progress in scientific research, environmental conservation and patient care.

“The NIH New Innovator Award is among the premier awards available to early-career scientists. I know firsthand how strong the competition for this award is,” said Carl Lejuez, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. “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.”

The NIH New Innovator Award and other NIH Director’s Awards are part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. NIH traditionally supports research projects, not individual investigators. However, the High-Risk, High-Reward program seeks to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact but may be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process. These awards encourage creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas in biomedical research. Slusky is one of 55 recipients of the New Innovator awards this year.

“I’m honored to receive this award and excited to further our goal of making antibiotics work like new,” Slusky said. “This will allow my lab to expand the scope of our work. Rather than focus on attacking a single type of bacteria, we will be able to see if our approach will be useful against a wider variety of bacteria. We also hope to discover more possibilities for our protein’s application in combating antibiotic resistance.”

The key to Slusky’s research lies in studying a protein within cells that rejects antibiotics before they reach their target. It has been shown that antibiotic resistance is often due to overexpression of these proteins, called efflux pumps. Her lab is focused on designing proteins to overcome drug-resistant bacteria by preventing the efflux pump in bacteria from kicking out antibiotics. Such an invention could lead to a helper drug that would be taken with antibiotics and inhibit over-expression.

Other researchers have studied efflux pumps as a route to target antibiotic resistance, but so far such efforts have produced toxic compounds. Slusky is targeting a different part of the efflux pump and is focused on stopping the protein-to-protein interaction that forms the pump, rather than blocking the pump once it’s formed. Her methods present four main benefits to other approaches: fewer toxicity concerns, broader applicability, higher effective concentration and lower likelihood of bacteria evolving to overcome the effects of her lab’s designed protein.

Slusky joined the KU faculty in 2014 after studying at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, with postdoctoral positions at Stockholm University in Sweden and Fox Chase Cancer Center in Pennsylvania. She has received grants and fellowships from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. She uses both computational and experimental methods for protein design, a sophisticated approach aimed at practical outcomes in basic and clinical science. Her lab studies the mechanisms of outer membrane proteins and their potential in therapeutic applications and environmental remediation.

The Department of Molecular Biosciences and the Center for Computational Biology are part of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. The College is the heart of KU, educating the most students, producing the most research and collaborating with nearly every entity at KU. The College is home to more than 50 departments, programs and centers, as well as the School of the Arts, School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, and School of Public Affairs & Administration.