November 7, 2008

Microbiology society lauds Skaar’s infectious disease work

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Eric Skaar, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Microbiology society lauds Skaar’s infectious disease work

Eric Skaar, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology, received the 2008 ICAAC Young Investigator Award from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) at the society's annual meeting last week.

The award, sponsored by Merck's U.S. Human Health Division, recognizes scientists early in their careers for excellence in research in microbiology and infectious diseases, ASM said in a statement.

“Receiving this award is a tremendous honor to me, particularly considering that I was selected by my colleagues in the field of microbiology,” Skaar said.

“I am very thankful to have such talented people working in my laboratory and to be a part of a number of productive collaborations with other investigators at Vanderbilt.”

Skaar and his team study how bacteria cause disease, with the long-term goal of developing novel therapies. The group has focused much of its effort on Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that Skaar characterizes as “arguably the most important bacterial pathogen in the United States.”

“Staph” is the leading cause of skin and soft tissue infections, the leading cause of infectious heart disease, the number one hospital-acquired infection and one of four leading causes of food-borne illness, he noted.

It's also resistant to almost every antibiotic we have, with methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) infections on the rise in the community.

Skaar and colleagues reported this year in Science that a protein called calprotectin inside certain immune system cells “starves” staph bacteria by binding their food — certain metals they require for growth. The findings suggest that drugs that act like calprotectin might make good antibiotics.

The group also studies other important human pathogens, including Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax) and Acinetobacter baumannii, which is a leading cause of hospital infections and battlefield wound infections.

Skaar has been studying bacteria since his undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin.

As a graduate student at Northwestern University, he focused on the pathogen Neisseria gonorrhoeae and discovered novel systems used by the bug to combat the oxidative stress response of the host.

His studies of S. aureus began during his postdoctoral training at the University of Chicago, where he characterized a previously unrecognized system that staph uses to transport iron — one of the nutrient metals it needs — across the cell wall.

He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2005 and is a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases and a Searle Scholar.

ICAAC is the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.