Yale scientist receives Hartwell Research Award to target chronic bacterial infections in children

Nikhil Malvankar, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry in the Yale Microbial Sciences Institute, has received a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award for biomedical research to advance children’s health.

The Hartwell Foundation award provides support for three years at $100,000 per year. In addition, Yale receives one Hartwell Fellowship of $100,000 to support a qualified postdoctoral researcher. Twelve individuals representing ten institutions received recognition as Hartwell Investigators.

A biophysicist by training, Malvankar’s postdoctoral work with environmental microbiologist Derek Lovley at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, identified the biophysical and molecular mechanism of how hair-like pili filaments of the soil microbe Geobacter function as “electrical wires”. He receives the Hartwell Award for his project Targeting Antibiotic Resistance and Biofilm Formation in Bacterial Infections.

Malvankar will collaborate with colleagues at Yale, namely Marie Egan, Barbara Kazmierczk, Charles Dela Cruz and Clemente Britto-Leon.

Chronic bacterial infections pose dangerous health risks and are particularly challenging in children. While most antibiotics target processes important for bacterial viability, bacteria rapidly adapt and develop resistance.

“Unfortunately, how bacteria protect themselves and continue to colonize the lung during antibiotic therapy is poorly understood, and without knowledge of the mechanism the development of new and effective drugs cannot proceed,” notes Malvankar. “In the short term, we will focus on finding new ways to combat bacterial infections in children with Cystic Fibrosis. Long-term, we will apply our findings to many other bacterial infections to understand the biophysical principles of bacterial attachment and metabolism during infections.”

In 80% of persistent infections the principle survival strategy of bacteria is to organize as a thin layer or biofilm, which blocks the action of most antibiotics. “Through the support of the Hartwell Foundation, we will investigate biofilm formation, and specifically the process of electron transfer that enables bacteria to survive” he said.

“If Nikhil is successful, targeting such a mechanism will lead to a new class of drugs designed to suppress biofilm growth. Blocking such a unique aspect of bacterial survival may exceed the ability of bacteria to adapt so that they cannot escape antibiotic therapy. For those children with chronic pediatric bacterial infections, new drugs to inhibit biofilm formation will have a significant positive impact on reducing morbidity and mortality in many common infections,” said Fred Dombrose, President of The Hartwell Foundation.

The Individual Biomedical Research Award Program from the Hartwell Foundation supports innovative, early-stage biomedical research with the potential to benefit children of the United States. Applications are by limited submission from institutions invited by the Foundation. In selecting awardees, the Foundation takes into account the compelling and transformative nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might accelerate the clinical application of research results to benefit children of the United States, the degree of collaboration in the proposed research, the level of institutional commitment to the investigator, and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference.

For more information visit www.thehartwellfoundation.org.