Nevada State College chemistry professor, Dr. Amber Howerton, has collaborated with UNLV faculty to earn a five-year, $3.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant was awarded in December 2014, to support the efforts of Dr. Howerton and UNLV chemistry professor, Dr. Ernesto Abel-Santos, as they continue their research on a drug aimed at preventing Clostridium difficile, or C. diff.
C. diff is “a bacterium that can cause significant illness, including severe abdominal pain and uncontrollable diarrhea.” (https://www.unlv.edu/news-story/abel-santos-team-receives-34-million-r01-grant-nih) C. diff can occur in patients taking antibiotics, especially the elderly and people with certain medical problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:
“When a person takes antibiotics, good germs that protect against infection are destroyed for several months. During this time, patients can get sick from C. difficile picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from a health care provider’s hands.”
If C. diff spores germinate in the intestines while a patient is on antibiotics (and, therefore, the good germs are gone), the bacteria can produce toxins, which cause illness. Common symptoms of a C. diff infection (CDI) include: Watery diarrhea; Fever; Loss of appetite; Nausea Belly pain and tenderness. http://www.cdc.gov/HAI/pdfs/cdiff/Cdiff_tagged.pdf
There are approximately 500,000 cases of CDI in the U.S. each year, costing more than $3.2 billion. “About 20,000 (people) are dying every year from this,” Dr. Kuniyuki, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS), said. “So this grant addresses an important health need.”
Dr. Howerton and Dr. Abel-Santos have conducted extensive research and experiments in order to develop a drug that will prevent CDI. They have been collaborating since 2008, when Dr. Howerton was working towards her Ph.D. in Chemistry at UNLV, and Dr. Abel-Santos was her graduate advisor. “Our experiments were published in scientific journals, including the Journal of bacteriology, the Journal of Infectious Disease and PLoSOne,” Dr. Howerton said. The JID journal named the research as the top study in the journal that month, and wrote an editorial about it. Also that article was include in F1000prime as cutting edge research. “Based on those studies that were published, we wrote a grant. We’re also writing two manuscripts right now,” she added.
The R01, or Research Project Grant, is highly-competitive, and Dr. Andy Kuniyuki says he is grateful to have one of its primary contributors here at NSC. “We’re very lucky that we have Amber with us as our bio-chemist,” he said. “That work and that grant stemmed from her efforts in Dr. Abel-Santos’ lab. As a result, we are not just participating, we are distinct collaborators.”
Dr. Howerton and Dr. Abel-Santos’ research led to the discovery of a compound called CamSA, which may prevent CDI in humans. “We’ve done some tests on hamsters and mice, and we’ve seen positive results,” she said. “The grant is to produce a whole library of compounds that we can test to try to find an even better inhibitor. Also, the grant will cover learning about how the specific drug CamSA works on a molecular level.” She and Dr. Abel-Santos will continue to work together, to explore the effects of the drug.
NSC faculty members, especially Dr. Howerton, speak highly of this partnership between Nevada State College and UNLV. “By having that collaboration, we have access to their equipment, and vice versa. They have things that we don’t have, and we have equipment that they don’t have. It’s beneficial to have some of the work here and some at UNLV,” Dr. Howerton explained. Another benefit to having some of the research conducted at NSC is student involvement; Dr. Howerton has a student research assistant, Alan Estrada, who will be performing histology tests on hamster tissue to learn the impact CamSA has on the intestinal lining.
Whether collaborating with students, faculty members or her colleagues at UNLV, Dr. Howerton firmly believes in the power of teamwork. “Collaborations in science are great no matter what,” she emphasized. “The more collaborations we have, the better able we are to generate sound data leading to the possibility of greater impact on science in general.”