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OU research team achieves $4.5 million Defense grant

A University of Oklahoma research team has been awarded a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to address the growing problem of three specific antibiotic resistant pathogens causing devastating infections in hospitals and in persons with cystic fibrosis. The OU research team achieved the only grant of its kind to perform research that potentially will lead to the design of effective antibiotic drugs.

Helen Zgurskaya, principal investigator and professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the OU College of Arts and Sciences, will direct the investigation of these three pathogens known to resist most clinically relevant antibiotics. Co-investigators on the project include Valentin Rybenkov, professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the OU College of Arts and Sciences; and James Aggen, professor of medicinal chemistry at Northeastern University.

"Our team will focus on the structural components that make the pathogenic cells resistant to antibiotics. In the process, we also will look at physico-chemical properties that allow antibiotics to penetrate the cell membrane and determine how to make these antibiotics effective against resistant bacteria. A comparison of antibiotics with different physico-chemical properties will help us understand the mechanisms and develop a realistic predictive model that will facilitate development of antibiotics capable of penetrating the cell wall of these bacteria," says Zgurskaya.

Initially, the team will develop protocols for comparing different properties of compounds. Currently, there is no single technique to measure how various antibiotics get into the cell. Aggen will assemble a library of compounds with different properties for measurement. Rybenkov will select the best method for analyzing how compounds penetrate the cells. The team plans to use fluorescence, mass-spectroscopy and a single cell molecule methodology.

As an end goal, the team will establish a "set of rules" for how antibiotics get into the cell. This approach will not only aid in the development of new and more effective antibiotics but will suggest new approaches in the fight against human pathogens. If interested in learning more about this research, please contact Helen Zgurskaya at


Contact: Jana Smith
University of Oklahoma

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