Several years of research conducted in a Boston University biomedical engineering laboratory recently garnered a prestigious honor, but the award came from across the Charles River — from MIT.
Graduate student Timothy Lu invented biological tools to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria in biofilms and human bodies. The work won him the 2008 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, an annual $30,000 award MIT presents to one of its students who is an outstanding inventor working on new solutions to real-world problems.
Though Lu attends MIT, he conducted his research at BU, in the laboratory of Professor Jim Collins (BME).
“He contacted me with an interest in synthetic biology,” said Collins. “He had interest in working in applied aspects of biotechnology and I encouraged him to look at this problem. It has broad medical, industrial, environmental and agricultural implications.”
Lu developed a way to engineer bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — giving them an enhanced ability to attack and destroy bacteria. He modified the genes of one bacteriophage to make it specifically target the mechanisms in bacteria that confer antibiotic resistance.
Lu then took his work a step further to apply it to the problem of biofilms, thin layers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria veiled in a layer of slime, that lurk on surfaces in hospitals, medical instruments and devices, and industrial and food processing machinery. Lu used his bacteriophage to infiltrate the layer, and turn the assembly lines within bacteria against themselves to produce slime-digesting enzymes, making way for the bacteriophage and antibiotics to directly access, and kill, the harmful bacteria.
With his PhD now complete, Lu now continues to study towards his MD. He said, “Being infected by difficult-to-eradicate bacteria is a traumatic experience for patients and a serious public health issue that needs attention. I thought that there had to be a solution for these infections.”
“He really is a very creative, innovative young scientist with entrepreneurial leanings,” said Collins. “It was a pleasure to have him in our lab. I appreciated the flexibility between MIT and BU that allowed a student from MIT to come over and work in a BU lab for his graduate studies.”