Texas Tech University

Undergraduate Research

TTU microbiology junior John Reed; photo by Toni Salama

Microbiology Junior John Reed
Awarded for Role in Biofilm Research

Written by Toni Salama

Bacterial infections are an ancient problem. But in recent years, scientists have come to understand that the bacteria achieve their potency by growing as a slime-enclosed aggregate known as biofilm, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Once the bacteria form a biofilm, the infection becomes extremely resistance to antibiotics—it's virtually untreatable—and advances to a chronic state.

Microbiology junior John Reed says biofilm can form in any type of wound that isn't treated properly, but for people with diabetes a biofilm infection is particularly serious. John is working on a research team that is testing one of several new selenium-based treatment methods to combat these and other infections. In April he took home the $1,000 Commercialization Track award from "Discoveries to Impact Week" for his role in researching a selenium-infused fabric that might revolutionize the treatment of chronic wounds.

Biofilm's Tenacious Hold

"People with diabetes can get a lot of nerve damage in their lower extremities because of poor circulation, and that leads to leg ulcers," John says, "When these wounds open up they are just really tough to treat. Having that open wound for an extended period of time leads to infection."

Worst-case scenario: Chronic infection can lead to amputation.

John spent the summer of 2018 interviewing diabetic patients, many of whom had undergone amputations. Their accounts told an all-too-similar story.

"They had these ulcers that had gotten infected, but the infection couldn't be stopped," he remembers. "They were visiting their doctors three times a week to get these wounds treated and re-bandaged. And then there just came a point where the limb just couldn't be saved."

Extreme as it is, amputation doesn't end the problem. It merely starts the final countdown.

"The life expectancy of a diabetic patient with an amputation is less than five years," says Ted Reid, professor of biotechnology, ophthalmology and visual sciences at Texas Tech University's School of Medicine. Reid and Phat Tran, a research instructor of ophthalmology and visual sciences there, are the principal investigators leading the selenium research program in which John is working.

Reid says selenium-infused fabric could create a sterile environment where biofilm might never form.

"Initially, when the bacteria get into a wound, the wound can actually protect itself. It can actually kill bacteria. You have white cells, antibodies and the tissue itself that can attack the bacteria," Reid says. "But if the bacteria can live on something that is in close contact with the wound—like a bandage or a sock—this allows it to keep re-infecting the wound. Eventually it overwhelms this defense system and eventually takes control."

The Selenium Solution

Over the past 10 months, John has been testing the effectiveness of a bonded fabric in combating biofilm. The active ingredient is a selenium-based compound that can be permanently bonded to fabric—gauze bandages, for example, or socks—and remain effective.

"With the compound bound to the fibers in the textile, it doesn't lose its catalytic activity," John explains. "In other words, it's not like an ointment that rubs away and is no longer effective. But since it is part of the fibers in the material, it is always biologically active."

The science behind that takes advantage of selenium's unique properties. (For a detailed explanation, see article below on Understanding Selenium Catalysis.)

Selenium is a chemical element on the periodic table and is essential to human life—about 100 micrograms a day to remain healthy, Reid says.

"Selenium has its own genetic code. It's incorporated into proteins in your body. You have to consume a minimum of 30 micrograms a day or you'll die. But the interesting thing about selenium is, if you go too high it will kill you," Reid says. He calls that lethal dose selenium's "dark side."

Reid's lab is developing ways to take advantage of selenium's dark side by controlling it and deploying it precisely where it can fight biofilm and other infections head-on. His researchers are testing the selenium bonding on medical items such as stints, heart valves, ear tubes and even contact lenses. One product already is FDA-approved and on the market: The dental sealant Selenbio prevents plaque formation on the teeth.

In the case of selenium-infused cloth bandages and socks, Reid says selenium can be attached to an organic molecule, which in turn allows it to be attached to cotton. That involves another member of the research team: Noureddine Abidi, managing director of Texas Tech's Fiber & Biopolymer Research Institute. Abidi's lab conducts the work of actually bonding the selenium to the fabric. Then John can conduct microbial tests.

To be practical for daily use and reuse, the permanency of bonding is crucial. John says his research has included experiments in which the selenium-infused fabric was run twice through a washing machine and twice through a dryer. When he retested it afterward, the fabric maintained its antimicrobial properties.

"I deal mainly with the microbiology side of things," John says. "But I definitely think the potential of the product is there, and we do have promising results. So it's promising to think that infused socks would be something that could be used over and over, especially for patients that have diabetes."

Foreseeable Future

As an undergraduate on the research team, John may not be on campus by the time the selenium-infused gauze and socks go commercial. But the 10 months he's worked on the project have filled him with enthusiasm for its possibilities.

The native of Uniontown, Kan., is equally pleased with his decision to become a Red Raider.

"I decided to attend TTU because I got accepted into the Honors College and received scholarships that made Tech the most affordable option," John says.

When he's not in the research lab, John is absorbed with going to classes, studying for classes, and tutoring middle school and high school students in math. Three times a week—six when he can—he hits the gym for some serious power lifting.

He's also waiting for his MCAT results so he can apply to medical school.

"Right now, I don't have a lot of free time. I'm bouncing from one thing right into the next almost all day."

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Understanding Selenium Catalysis

Written by Toni Salama

In the quest to fight dangerous infections, Ted Reid is using selenium as his weapon of choice.

Reid is a professor of biotechnology, ophthalmology and visual sciences at Texas Tech University's School of Medicine. Along with co-principal investigator Phat Tran, a research instructor of ophthalmology and visual sciences there, he's leading a research program to develop medical products that take advantage of selenium's unique properties.

TTUHSC Biotechnology Professor Ted Reid"The nice thing about selenium is that it has a catalytic mechanism," Reid says. He describes the catalytic mechanism by saying that selenium is able to perform a function but remain unchanged by the process.

"So selenium can catalyze the formation of superoxide radicals and keep doing this for as long as it is attached to any material. Now superoxide—which would kill you if you had too much—sounds very potent, but it's not really very potent," Reid explains. "That's good because that's why we can live with selenium and we need selenium. It's useful for many different processes in the body."

When selenium is infused into fabric—for example a sock or a gauze bandage—it forms a bond and stays there permanently. That's good, too, because when bacteria also try to bind to the fabric, the superoxide can then kill the bacteria.

It's a dynamic that only works at the point of contact because, with a half-life of milliseconds, the superoxide is gone almost as quickly as it forms.

"That's why we can attach it to a contact lens that you can put in your eye and it can kill bacteria that tries to bind to the contact lens," Reid says, "but it doesn't damage your eye."

Contact lenses are but one use for selenium-infused items that Reid's lab is currently testing. Other medical items under research include stints, heart valves and ear tubes. One product already is FDA-approved and on the market: The dental sealant Selenbio prevents plaque formation on the teeth.

TTUHSC Biotechnologist Phat TranAnother potential for this technology is for selenium-infused cloth bandages and socks. Such products could prove particularly helpful for diabetics, who tend to develop ulcers in their lower extremities. Once a bacterial infection sets in and forms into a biofilm, it can become increasingly difficult to stop. One of the students working in Ted Reid's lab, microbiology junior John Reed, recently won an undergraduate research award for running tests on the selenium-infused cloth. (See article above on Microbiology Junior John Reed.)

Reid says selenium-infused fabric could create a sterile environment where biofilm might never form.

"Initially, when the bacteria get into a wound, the wound can actually protect itself. It can actually kill bacteria. You have white cells, antibodies and the tissue itself that can attack the bacteria," Reid says. "But if the bacteria can live on something that is in close contact with the wound—like a bandage or a sock—this allows it to keep re-infecting the wound and eventually it overwhelm this defense system and eventually take control."

Bacteria aren't the only pathogens out there, though. So Reid's lab is testing the effectiveness of selenium-based items against fungi and viruses.

"This superoxide can also be used to kill fungi like athlete's foot," Reid says. "and it can inactivate viruses."

With Selenbio already on the market, other products may not be far behind. Reid says items like socks and bandages can be commercialized in a matter of months after testing is completed and approvals are obtained.

"Those can happen pretty fast," Reid says. In contrast, the medications his lab also is working to develop—new antibiotics, antiviral drugs and anticancer drugs—are on a much slower schedule. "When we're working on a drug, those take a long time because there are so many more trials."

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