Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Searching for Solutions to Chronic Infection

Kyle R. Allison

If you or a loved one has ever struggled with a bacterial infection that seemed to have gone away with antibiotic treatment, but then came back again, you’ll probably be interested to learn about the work of Kyle Allison. What sometimes happens when a person has an infection—for instance, a staph infection of the skin—is that antibiotics kill off the vast majority of bacteria, but a small fraction remain alive. After antibiotic treatment ends, those lurking bacterial “persisters” begin to multiply, and the person develops a chronic infection that may be very difficult and costly to eliminate.

Unlike antibiotic-resistant superbugs, bacterial persisters don’t possess any specific genetic mutations that protect them against the killing power of one particular medication or another. Rather, the survival of these bacteria depends upon their ability to enter a dormant state that allows them to hang on in the face of antibiotic treatment. It isn’t clear exactly how the bugs do it, and that’s where Kyle’s work comes in.

One of 17 young scientists to receive a 2014 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, this systems biology fellow at New York’s Columbia University is using his award to explore the problem of bacterial persistence in greater detail. The first step for Kyle is to develop reliable methods for isolating bacteria that have entered a persistent state. That’s no simple task, because bacterial persisters and their non-persistent kin appear to be genetically identical. He also needs to develop a way of studying persisters in the lab, without activating them—a vital tool for figuring out what sets them apart from their non-persistent counterparts at the molecular level.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.