Hijacking the Hijackers: Taking Advantage of the Chemistry of Bacterial Pathogens
What if we could understand the molecular "tricks" some disease-causing bacteria use to invade our bodies' healthy cells? Would we be able to "hijack" those otherwise harmful processes and employ them instead to deliver precise doses of medicine? Cottrell Scholar Linda Columbus is trying to find out. Her long-term goal is to engineer liposomes - basically, tiny sacks of fatty material with liquid payloads of vaccine or other medicine - to mimic bacteria that easily seem to gain entry to eukarotic cells. (Eukarotic cells, including our own, contain complex structures enclosed within membranes.) To get the liposomes into these cells, however, Columbus must first learn how certain bacteria are gaining entry. At the heart of the process are "molecular recognition events." That is, some bacteria seem to have molecular-protein "keys" that trigger cell membranes to enfold and admit them. "The ability of a foreign object to enter the cytoplasm of a living cell is an amazing feat," Columbus says. She is working with proteins found on the surfaces of Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Neisseria meningitides, bacteria which cause gonorrhea and bacterial meningitis, respectively. Although there are certainly no guarantees of success in this type of high-risk/potentially high-reward research, Columbus might also produce some useful knowledge of how these bacteria develop antibiotic resistance.
Columbus has already implemented a laboratory course introducing students to the multidisciplinary aspects of modern research. In the Education section of her Cottrell Scholar proposal, she outlines plans to do the same for a lecture course. The goal is to encourage undergraduate students to integrate the scientific knowledge they acquire while developing their analytical thinking skills, and cultivating their writing and speaking abilities. The course she is creating is titled, "From Lab Bench to Your Medicine Cabinet," an introduction to drug discovery methods. It's vital, Columbus says, that today's students, who will soon be tomorrow's scientists, learn quickly how to find resources beyond their textbooks, and to speak and write scientifically.