Funds Will Support Research Targeting Antibiotic Resistance and Genetic Diseases
February 2, 2016
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A short video from the presentation event can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/ED_ZDV5er0g
A public health biologist who is trying to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pave the way to new treatments for genetic diseases has received the 2016 President’s Frontier Award, a Johns Hopkins University honor that provides $250,000 in research funding. The program was launched last year as part of an expanded university effort to provide more funding to help its faculty move forward with innovative research projects.
This year’s recipient is Scott Bailey, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, within the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Bailey also is affiliated with the school’s Malaria Research Institute.
Bailey learned about the award during a surprise presentation on Feb. 1 in his lab on the university’s East Baltimore campus.
After hearing about the award, Bailey said he immediately began thinking about what his team might do with the new Frontier funding, including “the ways we can push into new ground, to take on more risky projects.”
He added, “Government funding is more narrowly defined in what you can do. With this, you can go after a problem and really take risks with it… That is where the breakthroughs tend to come.”
Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Robert C. Lieberman presented the award to Bailey, as some of his students and colleagues looked on.
In a joint statement that mentioned two other new internal funding honors presented recently, Daniels and Lieberman said, “It is deeply gratifying to see our faculty move their innovative work forward with the support of the President’s Frontier Award program as well as with the Discovery and Catalyst awards. We look forward to all that lies ahead for Scott, for our finalists and, indeed, for the community of remarkable scholars of which they are a part.”
Bailey grew up in Sheffield, England, and earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Sheffield, U.K. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale before joining the faculty of the Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2008. In recent years, Bailey’s groundbreaking research has led him to be lauded as one of the best structural biologists of his generation.
“As a researcher, Scott is incredibly gifted,” said Pierre A. Coulombe, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Bloomberg School. “He’s bold in the choices he makes, but steady and poised as he is pursuing a question. He also has been a very strong mentor to his students.”
As a structural biologist, Bailey works at the edges of scientific knowledge to understand at the molecular level how bacteria’s immune systems fight off the threat posed by harmful viruses.
Using X-ray crystallography, Bailey and his team have visualized the atomic structure of Cascade, a large multi-protein complex that binds to a DNA target. Cascade is a key element of the CRISPR system of bacterial immunity. CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.
The breakthrough by Bailey’s team allowed for a better understanding of the bacterial immune response and how it acts as a barrier to the transfer of genetic information that promotes virulence and antibiotic resistance among bacterial cells.
This new insight about how CRISPR functions sets the stage for the development of new drugs to prevent antibiotic resistance. This is important because more bacterial infections are becoming immune to existing antibiotics, leading to a major public health crisis.
Also, because the CRISPR system has been isolated and adapted for genome editing in a wide variety of species, including humans, the Bailey team’s new findings have implications for the technique’s emerging use to correct the genetic defects responsible for a broad array of diseases.
Bailey said the CRISPR research is “a good poster child for basic research. It started with people looking at yogurt, trying to make yogurt more cost-effective, and all of a sudden we’ve got something that may be a cure for genetic disease.”
The President’s Frontier Award was made possible through a generous donation from two Johns Hopkins alumni: university trustee Louis J. Forster and alumna Kathleen M. Pike. The award will recognize one person each year for five years with funding for their research expenses. When it was announced, the program was characterized as an investment in a researcher’s future potential, rather than a lifetime achievement award.
After the 2016 Frontier Award nomination process was opened to full-time faculty from all Johns Hopkins schools and campuses, dozens of nominations were submitted and reviewed in a two-tiered process before the president and the provost made the final selection.
University leaders said that in addition to the award winner Bailey, three outstanding 2016 finalists are each being recognized with $50,000 presidential monetary gifts to fund their research and advance their academic pursuits.
These three finalists are Xin Chen, an associate professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences; Michael Hersch, a composer and pianist on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory; and Shanthini Sockanathan, a professor of neuroscience in the School of Medicine.