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Superbug research earns UTHealth student prestigious UNCF/Merck fellowship

Charles Darkoh, a graduate student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), has been awarded a fellowship from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and Merck for his research into a major health problem multidrug-resistant Clostridium difficile bacterial infection.

Darkoh was one of 12 graduate students receiving fellowships this year through the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative. Darkoh was awarded a graduate science research dissertation fellowship worth up to $53,500.

Darkoh is enrolled at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, which trains research scientists and scientist-educators, as well as generates new knowledge in the biomedical sciences. The school is overseen by UTHealth and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

"These research pioneers will make discoveries that serve as a lifeline of answers for people who face challenges such as pancreatic cancer, Alzheimer's, and diabetes today-similar to diseases like polio and smallpox that are no longer the threat to life they once were because of major scientific breakthroughs," said George Stancel, Ph.D., dean of the graduate school, executive vice president for academic and research affairs at UTHealth and holder of the John P. McGovern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Endowed Distinguished Professorship. "I like to refer to these young men and women on the path to their biomedical degrees as the 'knowledge generators' of the future."

For years, doctors have prescribed diverse antibiotics to treat various bacterial infections. Overuse of antibiotics has resulted in some of these bacteria developing resistance to the drugs designed to kill them. C. difficile is one such bacterium. Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Within the last decade, the number of cases of C. difficile infection (CDI) in the United States has tripled in rate with a corresponding increase in fatalities due to the infection. The total cost of treatment is estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion annually.

CDI occurs after antibiotic use and is associated with 10-25 percent of the cases of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, 50-75 percent of the cases of antibiotic-associated colitis and 90-100 percent of the cases of pseudomembranous colitis, which is characterized by severe inflammation of the colon.

During infection, C. difficile releases toxins into the colon that cause disease. Early detection of the bacterium is critical to instituting curative therapy to prevent further damage by the toxins. Darkoh's research focuses on understanding how these toxins are produced and developing a cost-efficient diagnostic test for the detection of this bacterium, which he hopes could lead to novel and innovative strategies for therapeutic intervention of C. difficile infection.

Darkoh is conducting his cutting-edge Ph.D. research in the laboratory of Herbert L. DuPont, M.D. M.A.C.P., director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and Mary W. Kelsey Distinguished Professor in the Medical Sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health, which is a part of UTHealth. Darkoh also is working with Heidi Kaplan, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the UTHealth Medical School.

"He is a super productive person," DuPont said. "And by that, I mean his output and creativity are unique at his stage of education."

DuPont pointed to Darkoh's work on a traveler's diarrhea treatment as an example. For more than a decade, DuPont's laboratory had been trying to explain an aspect of the treatment. "He was able to explain in three months what I had been working on for 13 years," DuPont said.

DuPont said Darkoh came highly recommended. "I called up a former mentor, Beatrice Clack, Ph.D., at Stephen F. Austin State University and I never heard such an enthusiastic endorsement," said DuPont, who also is a faculty member at the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.


Contact: Robert Cahill
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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