BME PhD Student Wins Top Prize in Collegiate Inventor’s Competition

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 Kyle Allison, winner of the top graduate prize in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, at work on persistent bacteria in the Collins Lab. (Photo by Cydney Scott)
Kyle Allison, winner of the top graduate prize in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, at work on persistent bacteria in the Collins Lab. (Photo by Cydney Scott)

Kyle Allison (BME), a PhD student in Professor James J. Collins’ (BME, MSE, SE) lab, won the $15,000 first prize for graduate students in the Collegiate Inventors Competition for his discovery of a promising new method to obliterate bacteria that cause chronic infections. Appearing before a panel of expert judges in Washington, D.C., Allison was chosen over nine graduate finalists working on six projects based at Harvard University, University of California-Los Angeles and University of Pennsylvania.

Since 1990 the competition has recognized, rewarded and encouraged hundreds of students from the U.S. and Canada to share their inventive ideas with the world. Its judges represent mathematics, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, information technology, materials science, medicine and other fields, evaluating entries on originality and inventiveness and potential value to society. This year’s finalists were drawn from about 100 entries, with graduate inventions ranging from a centrifuge chip that isolates rare cancer cells to a brain-safe cranial drilling device.

“Being selected as a finalist for this competition means that a number of judges who are experts in their field looked at my invention and work and decided it was one of the best/most important in the last year,” said Allison, whose research with Collins was published in Nature last May. “That type of validation is incredibly powerful.”

“Kyle’s selection as a finalist for the Collegiate Inventors Competition is a marvelous honor and clear, national recognition of his inventiveness and innovative work in bioengineering,” said Collins. “His inventive approach to eradicating persistent bacterial infections has the potential to immediately enhance the treatment of infectious diseases in industrialized countries as well as the developing world.”

Chronic bacterial infections are believed to be perpetuated by persisters, dormant bacterial cells that antibiotics can’t seem to wipe out. In collaboration with Collins, Allison has 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.

Pathway to Invention

Allison credits Collins with sparking his interest in improving understanding of how antibiotics work using novel approaches.

“I pursued this research when I gained a full appreciation for just how difficult the problem of persisters was to address, and just how relevant a solution would be to millions of people affected by chronic and recurrent infections,” he said.

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.

“After some failed attempts trying to fully wake up persisters, I realized that I might be able to make aminoglycoside antibiotics kill persisters if I fed the bacteria high-efficiency energy sources like sugars,” said Allison.

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 is now working on plans to commercialize and test the new therapy on human patients.

Sponsors of the Collegiate Inventors Competition are the Abbott Fund, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the Kauffman Foundation. The Competition is operated by Invent Now, which seeks new and creative ways to spread the inventive spirit, developing a range of creative products, programs and innovative partnerships that emphasize the importance of invention in society.

This development was also covered in the Boston Globe and BU Today.

Allison (second from left) after receiving first prize in the graduate student category in Washington, D.C.
Allison (second from left) after receiving first prize in the graduate student category in Washington, D.C.