Libby Awarded $1.96M Early-Stage Investigator Grant from NIH
Elizabeth Libby, assistant professor of bioengineering, recently received a five-year, $1.96 million Early Stage Investigator R35 MIRA (Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award) grant from the National Institutes of Health for “Physiological and Developmental Role of Bacterial Ser/Thr Kinases.” Libby’s research is focused on how bacteria develop resistance at the cellular level—knowledge that will be crucial to the development of more effective antibiotics.
The Battle Against Antibiotic Resistance
What if your child came down with pneumonia and no antibiotic could treat it? Or your spouse developed MRSA during a hospital visit and the best anyone could do is say, “Good luck?”
As traditional antibiotics lose their effectiveness, many deadly diseases have become more difficult to treat. In fact, the World Health Organization declared that “antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to world health, food security, and development.”
This is why Elizabeth Libby, assistant professor of bioengineering, recently received a five-year, $1.96 million Early Stage Investigator R35 MIRA (Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award) grant from the National Institutes of Health. Libby’s research is focused on how bacteria develop resistance at the cellular level—knowledge that will be crucial to the development of more effective antibiotics.
To do this, she is exploring an ancient class of signaling systems—the Hanks-type serine/threonine kinases and phosphatases—which determines and regulate cell growth and behavior, including susceptibility to common antibiotics such as penicillin and cephalosporins.
“This primordial signaling system is extremely important because it’s a key contributor to the failure of antibiotic treatment in major diseases such as tuberculosis, MRSA, strep throat, and C-diff,” says Libby.
Building new proteins
Libby was trained as a physicist and microbial geneticist but made a switch early in her career to synthetic biology.
“I’m fascinated by how we can use biological parts that exist in nature to create new biological functions,” she explains. “My group has built new proteins that can sense processes that couldn’t be easily measured before.”
Libby believes that one way to develop new antibiotic treatments lies in understanding how cells change their physiology and behavior to adapt to a hostile environment. How do they receive and interpret the signals that tell them when to shut down, when to grow, and when to adapt their processes to a new threat?
If scientists understand what determines adaptive behavior at the cellular level, they can use that knowledge to devise a way to block that adaptation.
Think of the harmful bacteria as a bully about to attack his victim. A bystander steps in and tries to land a punch, but when the bully senses this threat, he puts up his hand and blocks the blow. But what would happen if the rescuer had figured out a way to block the bully’s sensing system so he doesn’t raise his hands? Wham—easy knockout. That’s what Libby is trying to do—determine how the bacterial cell learns that it’s about to be punched by a powerful antibiotic, and turn off that signal so the attack can be successful.
To do this, she is combining elements of well-studied proteins to build a new protein that will help her track and control the cellular response to its environment.
“This synthetic biology approach is super new,” she says. “We are building new proteins to measure what is happening inside the cell.”
It’s complicated, painstaking work and the size of the NIH grant frees her from fundraising so that she can devote more time to her research.
“I received the grant two days after I gave birth to my second child,” she says. “It was a great week.”