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Simple, Cheap Therapy Could Win Big

ENG student a finalist in Collegiate Inventors Competition


Kyle Allison has just 10 minutes to present three years’ worth of research to a panel of judges. If he does it right, he’ll get $15,000 and the considerable status that comes with first prize in the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition, whose final round takes place today.

Allison (ENG’12), a College of Engineering PhD candidate, is one of nine graduate finalists (working on six projects) in the contest, which drew some 100 entries from around the United States and Canada. The sole BU student among the finalists, Allison was tapped for his invention of a simple and inexpensive therapy for persistent infections, a pervasive health problem worldwide.

Persistent infections are caused by bacteria that go into hibernation, only to revive later and wreak havoc. They play a role in bacterial pneumonia, which is the number one killer of children worldwide, and they are a cause of chronic staphylococcus infections such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). They are particularly hard to treat, because the dormant bacteria do not absorb the antibiotics commonly used to treat infections.

Allison’s research began in 2007, when he joined the lab of James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and an ENG professor of biomedical engineering. Collins suggested that Allison look into finding a way to wake up these sleeping bacteria. Allison thought hard about it for two weeks, read everything he could, and then told Collins he didn’t think it was possible.

“He said, ‘Sounds like a great project for you,” Allison recalls.

He theorized that if he could energize the cells, they might start to take up the antibiotics. A year later, he found his energizing agent in the kitchen pantry—sugar. As he’d hoped, the bacteria metabolized the sugar, and the cells began to absorb the antibiotics. “I found I could wipe out the majority of persisters, cells that couldn’t be killed by any other treatment, in just two hours,” Allison says.

He and Collins, who jointly published their findings last spring in the journal Nature, found that sugar dramatically boosts the effectiveness of so-called first-line antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline. They believe that a sugar-antibiotics combination could be used to wipe out recurring, often debilitating infections such as those of the ear, throat, lungs, and urinary tract, all of which can spread to the kidneys and other vital organs if left unchecked. The most significant impact of the BU team’s 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’s solution is not only effective, but simple and inexpensive, big pluses in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, which looks for inventions that could be useful in all parts of the world. The contest is operated by Invent Now, a nonprofit that encourages invention, and sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the Abbott Fund, a philanthropic organization.

The finalists will make their presentations in Washington D.C., where the winner will be announced tomorrow, November 15. In recent weeks, Allison says, he’s spent untold hours practicing his presentation, giving trial runs to his lab partners, and boiling down hundreds of hours in the lab.

“I could talk about this forever,” he says, “but I only have 10 minutes.”

Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

5 Comments on Simple, Cheap Therapy Could Win Big

  • Kathy Moore on 11.14.2011 at 9:59 am


  • Janice Ni on 11.14.2011 at 11:21 am

    Ice cream antibiotics a possibility? Marvelous!

  • BU Mom on 11.14.2011 at 4:36 pm

    Best of luck Kyle — wishing you success!!

  • Helen on 11.15.2011 at 3:57 pm

    Congratulations on winning!!

  • Victoria on 11.15.2011 at 4:39 pm

    Congratulations! this is so incredible.

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