| 03.19.2018

UI researcher plans innovative techniques to fight disease

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a research grant to University of Idaho research scientist Haiqing Sheng, to research a novel approach to fighting E. coli.

“The Gates Foundation is very innovative in the kinds of projects that it chooses to fund and so it”s a great funding agency to work with,” said Bill Loftus, spokesperson for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Loftus said Sheng”s project focuses on a new method of fighting E. coli that will use probiotics to fight off only the disease-causing, or enteropathogenic, bacteria.

The technique would also use a modified virus that specifically targets and kills the disease-causing forms of E. coli bacteria, Loftus said. The technique will also use a beneficial variety of E. coli bacteria that removes the disease-causing E. coli from the intestinal tract.

The method targets harmful bacteria but leaves the other beneficial bacteria in place, Loftus said. Unlike other treatments, he said it also guards against future reinfection.

“So it”s like the anti-antibiotic approach,” Loftus said. “Instead of killing everything, you”re just killing the bad actors.”

E. coli infections cause hundreds of thousands of childhood deaths each year around the world, Loftus said. The disease causes 30 percent of infant diarrhea cases in South Africa, Kenya, Bangladesh, Brazil and Mexico, where infections often occur due to poor water quality, he said.

“We consider (diarrhea) sort of an inconvenience in the U.S., but in developing countries where water quality is poor, that”s what kills hundreds of thousands of kids around the world,” Loftus said.

When people typically get an E. coli infection, Loftus said doctors prescribe antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

Yet, Loftus said the drugs also kill all forms of bacteria in the digestive system. Some E. coli are beneficial and are needed to help with digestion, so killing them can cause long-term effects he said.

Once destroyed, Loftus said the body must go through a lengthy and difficult recovery process to regain those beneficial bacteria.

Loftus said existing drugs have other drawbacks as well. He said these drugs are often in short supply in developing countries, where E. coli is a major problem.

The drugs also do not guard against reinfection, which sometimes can occur during the recovery process when the body is already weakened, Loftus said.

Loftus said there were 1,800 proposals submitted to the Gates Foundation, but Sheng”s was one of only 59 that were funded. The proposal was funded as part of the Foundation”s Grand Challenges Explorations grant, which provides initial funding of $100,000.

The Gates Foundation has funded Sheng”s work for a year, and he has one year to conduct laboratory tests to demonstrate that his plan could work.

Ryan Locke  can be reached at  arg-news@uidaho.edu

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