A breakthrough discovery in the lab of Andrew Herr, PhD, has the potential to provide a powerful weapon against hospital-acquired infections, which cause over 100,000 deaths per year in the United States—equivalent to the number of deaths due to AIDS, breast cancer and vehicular accidents combined.
For his role in co-founding a company that has an exclusive licensing agreement to develop and market technology resulting from the discovery, Herr has been selected as UC’s 2014 recipient of the Emerging Entrepreneurial Achievement Award. He was honored at the All-University Faculty Awards celebration April 17, 2014.
Herr’s team in the Department of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry and Microbiology at the UC College of Medicine discovered the mechanism by which staphylococcal bacteria adhere to one another to form biofilms, surface-adherent colonies that are resistant to antibiotic treatment and immune responses and therefore must often be surgically removed. These biofilms are remarkably adhesive and can grow on many surfaces, including implanted medical devices such as pacemakers, heart valve replacements and artificial joints.
A protein on the bacterial surface becomes adhesive in the presence of zinc, researchers discovered, creating what Herr calls a "zinc zipper” that plays a key role in infections. Addition of a zinc-binding chelator (removal agent) called DTPA (diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid) prevented the biofilm from forming, researchers found.
There are no effective products on the market today that prevent biofilm formation by Staph bacteria. UC filed a patent application covering the use of DTPA or other chelators alone or in combination with antibiotics to prevent bacterial colonization and biofilm formation. Herr was a co-founder of Chelexa Biosciences, which currently has an exclusive licensing agreement with UC to develop and market this technology.