Student Researchers in Virology

Biology graduate students Ryan O’Hara and Chris Rew are working on projects that originated from undergraduate student interest and projects funded through the SOAR and Summer Undergraduate Research Programs.

As public health experiences the continuing loss of our main stable of antibiotics, researchers worldwide are vigorously investigating other methods of killing bacteria. Bacteriophages ('phages': viruses of bacteria) are high on the list and have been commercialized for food protection (against Lysteria). Approvals for therapy are 'in the pipeline' for Staph' & Strep' infections. Major obstacles to phage therapy include the body's ability to 'sweep out' phages, as foreign objects, even though they do NOT infect the human host, but only serve to clear and control bacteria. Phages are a natural part of our personal microflora, yet implementation of phage therapy has frequently been hobbled by immune defense cells that gobble up the phages, destroying the potential therapeutic effect.

O'Hara and Rew are investigating two critical aspects of this problem. O’Hara investigates 'binding kinetics' that quantify how tightly phages can bind to target bacterial spores. He is also investigating the phage structural proteins most essential to this binding. His work will narrow the search for phages or molecular structures effective in controlling disease-causing bacterial spores. Rew does selections for phages (there are zillions of different phages) that resist destruction by the body’s defense cells. His work will produce an improved selection of phages that can be used more effectively in therapy of bacterial infections.

Both of these projects focus on the 'applied' nature of student and faculty research in our labs, while also accomplishing 'basic' research in virology, where surprisingly little is known about phage-bacterial dynamics in the human body during infection.