June 30, 2006

Skaar lands infectious disease research grant

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

Skaar lands infectious disease research grant

Completing a scientific hat-trick of sorts, Eric Skaar, Ph.D., M.P.H., has added a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award to his recent Searle Scholar Award and National Institutes of Health R01 grant.

Skaar is one of 14 assistant professors selected from a group of 125 nominees to receive a 2006 BWF Investigators in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease award.

Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) will provide $400,000 over five years to support Skaar's research, with few strings attached.

“The relatively unrestricted nature of the BWF award makes it particularly attractive,” said Skaar, assistant professor of Microbiology & Immunology.

“It's really quite humbling to get both the BWF and the Searle awards and to find myself part of such an established and successful group of scientists.”

The BWF program aims to foster the development and productivity of accomplished researchers, still early in their careers, who are focusing on the points where human and microbial systems connect.

“The threat of infectious disease is of global concern,” said BWF President Enriqueta Bond, Ph.D. “Understanding the underlying principles of how the microbial world interacts with the human host is of paramount importance. We are pleased to play a role in the expansion of knowledge in this important field.”

Skaar's team studies Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that he 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, Skaar noted.

“And to top the list, staph can be resistant to just about every drug that we have,” Skaar said.

Particularly troubling, he pointed out, is the increase in methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) in community-acquired staph isolates. Some investigators have suggested that we are returning to a pre-penicillin-like era, when systemic staph infections had an 80 percent fatality rate, Skaar said.

The primary immune system cells that respond to staph infections are neutrophils, which “basically gobble up bacteria,” Skaar said.

“In its simplest form, a staph infection is a fight between the staph and the neutrophil.”

Skaar is using proteomics technologies developed at Vanderbilt to identify proteins that are part of that battle. Those proteins might make good targets for therapeutics, he said.

In pilot studies, Skaar and his colleagues compared staph infections in normal mice and in mice lacking neutrophils. Using imaging mass spectrometry to study kidney abscesses in these mice, the investigators identified up to 70 proteins in the staph-containing abscesses that are present in a neutrophil-dependent manner.

One of these proteins, when purified and added to staph, kills the bacteria.

“We're following up on the preliminary data with that one protein, and it's pretty exciting to think about what the other 69 proteins might be,” Skaar said.

Skaar credits the resources at Vanderbilt — both his colleagues in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology and the proteomics technologies and core services — with the success of his proposals.

“I was able to capitalize on techniques and expertise that only exist at Vanderbilt,” he said. “This is a truly interdisciplinary effort.”