BME Alum Receives $1.25M NIH Director’s Early Independence Award

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Funding to Support Antibiotics Research

By Mark Dwortzan

While earning his PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, Kyle Allison (BME, PHD'13) developed a new approach for eradicating persistent bacterial infections.
While earning his PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University, Kyle Allison (BME, PHD’13) developed a new approach for eradicating persistent bacterial infections.

Kyle Allison (BME, PhD’13) has received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award based largely on research he conducted as a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University as a member of Professor James J. Collins’ (BME, MSE, SE) lab. One of 17 issued nationwide, the award provides up to $250,000 per year for five years to enable exceptional early career scientists to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move rapidly into independent research positions at US institutions.

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, Allison developed an innovative method to eradicate “persisters,” dormant bacterial cells that antibiotics can’t seem to wipe out and are believed to be responsible for perpetuating chronic bacterial infections.

Early Independence Award funding makes it possible for awardees’ host institutions to provide separate lab space, access to common equipment and resources, and mentoring similar to that provided to assistant professors, without requiring them to take on significant administrative or teaching duties.

“The award will allow me to assemble and direct a research team to continue efforts I began during my PhD research at BU,” said Allison. “We will develop technologies for understanding and combating bacterial persistence that will be broadly useful to researchers and benefit the public.”

In collaboration with Collins, Allison invented a treatment that combines selected sugars with a class of antibiotics called aminoglycosides to eliminate bacterial persisters. Effective in treating biofilms (a complex aggregation of microbes growing on a surface, as in dental plaque) and chronic urinary tract infections in mice, the invention has broad implications for treatment of chronic infections including those caused by tuberculosis, pneumonia and staphylococcus and streptococcus—diseases affecting millions every year.

Persisters seem to respond initially to antibiotic treatment, then go into hiding, only to emerge weeks or months later—and sometimes more aggressive than they were initially. What Allison and Collins discovered is that selected sugars “wake up” stealthy, dormant bacteria that can lie in a state of metabolic hibernation for weeks or months, and dramatically boost the effectiveness of some first-line antibiotics.

By adding sugar to antibiotics, he and Collins found they were able, within a few hours, to obliterate 99.9 percent of cultures of persister staphylococcus and e coli, the culprit in most urinary tract infections, which affect thousands of Americans and can lead to life-threatening complications. The researchers have also used this new combination therapy to improve treatment of bacteria in biofilms, which play a role in most bacterial infections.

Allison’s innovation is now being developed for clinical use at a startup called Enbiotix that was co-founded by Collins, Boston University and other entities. He credits the BME Department for providing excellent mentorship and support for his initial research in the field.

“The department, with its combination of renowned experts and new innovators, was and is an exceptional environment for pioneering research and for training the next generation of biomedical engineers,” he said.