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Clark College biology students search for new lifesavers

School 1 of just 2 dozen chosen for project that seeks new antibiotics

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published: January 27, 2015, 4:00pm
3 Photos
Geoffrey Cox, left and his lab partner Quinn O'Bryant examine bacteria cultures Tuesday in a Clark College biology class that focuses on looking for new antibiotics. The class is part of the Small World Initiative, organized and funded by the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. Top, a petri dish holds bacterial cultures grown from soil samples.
Geoffrey Cox, left and his lab partner Quinn O'Bryant examine bacteria cultures Tuesday in a Clark College biology class that focuses on looking for new antibiotics. The class is part of the Small World Initiative, organized and funded by the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. Top, a petri dish holds bacterial cultures grown from soil samples. Photo Gallery

Antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.

The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade. Many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments.

Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left, enjoying reduced competition to grow and multiply. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Decreasing inappropriate antibiotic use is the best way to control resistance.

Children are of particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use.

Antibiotic resistance can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov

Who: Some Clark College biology students, along with other undergraduate students across the nation

What: Conducting research to discover new antibiotics

Funded by: Yale Center for Scientific Teaching

Details: Learn more at http://smallworldinitiative.org/about

Wearing a white lab coat and blue nitrile gloves, Ryan Kustusch stood in the front of his biology lab Tuesday at Clark College and instructed his students as they prepared to research new antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the world's most pressing public health problems.

The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade. Many bacterial infections are becoming resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotic treatments.

Every time a person takes antibiotics, sensitive bacteria are killed, but resistant germs may be left, enjoying reduced competition to grow and multiply. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Decreasing inappropriate antibiotic use is the best way to control resistance.

Children are of particular concern because they have the highest rates of antibiotic use.

Antibiotic resistance can cause significant danger and suffering for people who have common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov

The class is part of the Small World Initiative, organized and funded by the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching. Clark is one of only two dozen colleges nationwide chosen last year to pilot the undergraduate research project. Only three other community colleges are participating.

In moments, students would begin working with three human pathogens. One was Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli.

Kustusch warned his students about contaminating their research: “If you pick your colony and move it to E. coli, you need to use a new toothpick every time,” he said.

Although some strains of the E. coli bacteria are harmful to humans, others are not. Students worked with an E. coli strain that’s been made less dangerous, so it’s safe to work with, he said. A student would not get sick unless he had a compromised immune system and were to drink a test tube or eat a petri dish filled with bacteria.

Earlier, students collected soil samples from around campus. About 75 percent of modern-day antibiotics come from microorganisms found in soil, Kustusch said.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the last decade, the number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased.

“Hopefully, we’ll find an antibiotic to kill E. coli,” said Shelby Lehman, 22, who said she’s considering a career in the medical field.

“We’re learning where antibiotics come from and how they’re made. This class is an eye-opener,” said Tony Smith, 46, who is taking the class as part of his prerequisites at Oregon Health & Science University, where he hopes to pursue a career as a physician assistant.

His lab partner is Zach Doren, 21, a general biology major who is unsure of his career path. Doren used an iPad to photograph his petri dishes of growing colonies of bacteria.

Students donned protective goggles and went to work. From their soil samples, they grew 32 cultures to use as potential antibiotics. Then they exposed the pathogens to each of those cultures. If the pathogen on the petri dish was eaten away, leaving behind a clear spot on the dish, then it proved that culture was indeed an antibiotic.

What’s next?

So far, every class has found organisms that are able to kill human pathogens, Kustusch said.

“We don’t know if they’re new antibiotics or whether they’ll have side effects to humans, but we have found antibiotics.”

Kustusch will take it to the next level when he begins further testing of the most promising antibiotics. He’ll do the testing at his lab at the University of Portland, where he also works. Researchers at Yale University will be doing the same kinds of tests, he said.

“The real goal of the class is to excite students with authentic research opportunities,” Kustusch said.

That excitement seemed to be spreading, much like the organisms growing in the petri dishes. Of the 18 students in the class, 12 say they plan for a career in the sciences.

Who: Some Clark College biology students, along with other undergraduate students across the nation

What: Conducting research to discover new antibiotics

Funded by: Yale Center for Scientific Teaching

Details: Learn more at http://smallworldinitiative.org/about

Quinn O’Bryant, 18, a Running Start student from Prairie High School, said she’s considering a medical career, but may focus on forensic pathology.

Nikki Corbett, 17, a Running Start student from Camas High School, said she’d been considering a career in veterinary medicine. But after hands-on research in the class, she said, “I might switch to researching for new antibiotics.”

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