ENG Student Wins Collegiate Inventors Competition

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Treatment for persistent infections takes first prize and $15K

By Amy Sutherland

Kyle Allison (ENG12) is the winner of the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition. Photo by Cydney Scott
Kyle Allison (ENG’12) is the winner of the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition. Photo by Cydney Scott

Kyle Allison won first place and a $15,000 prize on Tuesday in the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition for his discovery of a simple and inexpensive therapy for persistent infections.

“It’s so surreal,” Allison says. “When they announced the winner was from BU, I didn’t realize at first that they meant me.”

Allison, a College of Engineering PhD candidate, was one of nine graduate finalists (working on six projects) in the national contest, which drew some 100 entries from around the United States and Canada. The finalists gave their presentations Monday in Washington, D.C., and winners were announced yesterday in the two categories, graduate and undergraduate.

Working in the lab of James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, Allison (ENG’12) found that sugar helps to wake up the dormant bacteria that cause persistent infections, thus increasing their vulnerability to antibiotics. He and Collins published the study in the journal Nature last spring.

A sugar-antibiotics combination could be used to wipe out recurring infections such as those of the ear, throat, lungs, and urinary tract, all of which can spread to vital organs if left unchecked. The most significant impact of the research could be on tuberculosis, a chronic bacterial infection of the lungs, which kills about 1.7 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization.

Allison says that as a graduate student, he had never contemplated having such a windfall, and he’s not sure what he will do with the $15,000.

The contest is operated by Invent Now, a nonprofit that encourages invention, and is sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Abbott Fund, a philanthropic organization, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which is devoted to entrepreneurship.