Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Decoding Bacteria Communication Signals
Brings Promise of Preventing Infections
For almost a decade, researchers have understood that bacteria communicate via chemical signals they produce, a process known as quorum sensing. Understanding how that process works and its advantageous applications in fighting infections is an issue that Kendra Rumbaugh, Ph.D., a basic scientist in the Department of Surgery, investigates in her laboratory at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
“In an age of increasing bacterial resistance and uncertainty about the continued effectiveness of traditional antibiotics, there is great interest in the development of novel antibacterial strategies,” she wrote in an article published in the September 2004 issue of The Scientist.
Rumbaugh began studying the communication signals of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa as a doctoral research student at the Health Sciences Center. This particular type of bacteria poses little threat to healthy individuals, but can be deadly for those with a compromised immune system. Traditional treatments have proven unsuccessful against the bacterium because of its strong resistance to antibiotics and its innate ability to survive in a variety of environmental conditions.
“It’s not about killing the bacterium, but about stopping the pathogen,” Rumbaugh says. “If the bacterial cells can’t communicate then there is no infection.”
Now a Health Sciences Center faculty member, Rumbaugh manages her own lab where she has expanded the research into mammalian cells. She said the investigation has multi-disciplinary implications and thus includes a collaborative group of researchers on the Health Sciences Center and Texas Tech University campuses: John Griswold, M.D., professor and chair of Surgery; Abdul Hamood, Ph.D., professor in Microbiology and Immunology; Simon Williams, Ph.D., associate professor of Cell Biology and Biochemistry; and Guigen Li, Ph.D., associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The team of researchers has successfully introduced autoinducers, or the molecules in the bacterium that produce the chemical signals necessary for communication, into mammalian cells and are studying the outcomes. “We’re looking at developing a chemical that will inhibit the bacterium’s communications, but we have to tread cautiously because of the potential effects (the chemical could have) on the host cells as well,” Rumbaugh says.
In addition to The Scientist, several other journals have featured the group’s research during the past year – the Journal of Bacteriology (April 2004), the American Society for Microbiology (June 2004) and the Journal of Surgical Research (January 2005).
“Kendra has been involved with cutting edge investigations that have had steamroller type success with peer review publications and recognition in some of the world’s most respected microbiology journals,” Griswold says. “She now is becoming successful in obtaining extramural funding.”
Rumbaugh recently received a grant from the American Lung Association, and her research was selected to receive a School of Medicine Seed Grant for FY 2005. The seed grants are typically smaller projects by junior investigators that show potential to earn external grant funding from programs such as the National Institutes of Health, according to Barbara Pence, associate vice president for research.