Researchers to Test Blocking ‘Hypermutations’ to Prevent the Growth of Deadly, Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Hand wearing purple glove holds a petri dish filled with bacteria. A blue tool is used to spread the bacteria. Photographer: Douglas Levere.

Bacteria strains that have “hypermutated” to develop antibiotic-resistance are an urgent, global, public health threat. Photographer: Douglas Levere

Published June 16, 2022

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Portrait of Brian Tsuji, wearing glasses, suit jacket and a checked shirt.

Brian Tsuji, professor of pharmacy practice and associate dean of clinical and translational sciences in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Mark Sutton PhD; Department of Biochemistry; Professor; Specialty/Research Focus; DNA Replication; Recombination and Repair; Gene Expression; Genome Integrity; Microbiology; Molecular and Cellular Biology; Protein Function and Structure; Signal Transduction; University at Buffalo; Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; 2014.

Mark Sutton, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

“There is mounting evidence that ‘hypermutator’ strains, which have a significantly increased frequency of spontaneous mutations, may help bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance and become more pathogenic. ”
Mark Sutton, professor of biochemistry
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB

BUFFALO, N.Y. – To combat “hypermutated” strains of deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has awarded the University at Buffalo a $4 million grant to study the underlying mechanisms by which rapidly acquired mutations interfere with antimicrobial therapies and develop new treatment strategies to combat these deadly infections.

The five-year study, funded by the agency’s Research Project Grant (RO1) program, will focus on antibiotic-resistant strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which, in 2017, caused an estimated 32,600 infections among hospitalized patients and 2,700 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The investigation is led by Brian Tsuji, PharmD, professor of pharmacy practice and associate dean of clinical and translational sciences in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Mark Sutton, PhD, professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. The award is the largest R01 grant awarded to UB by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2022.

“Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an urgent, global, public health threat. Highly resistant strains have emerged that possess a remarkable evolutionary capacity to adapt and persist in the face of therapy,” says Tsuji. “The scarcity of treatment options and the broken antibiotic pipeline demands the development of new therapeutic strategies that target non-traditional, unexploited pathways.”

“Our results will set the cornerstone for future testing of anti-mutators in clinical trials and provide unprecedented insight into combination therapies for bacterial strains that are urgent threats,” says Sutton.

“There is mounting evidence that ‘hypermutator’ strains, which have a significantly increased frequency of spontaneous mutations, may help bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance and become more pathogenic,” says Sutton. 

These mutations in the bacteria develop when errors occur during DNA replication and repair.

Tsuji and Sutton aim to define the contributions of hypermutators to antibiotic resistance. In collaboration with Anthony Berdis, PhD, professor of chemistry at Cleveland State University, who previously pioneered the synthesis and testing of non-natural nucleotides as anti-cancer therapies, the researchers also aim to develop new treatment strategies for antibiotic-resistant strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa by combining the delivery of antibiotics with non-natural nucleotides.

Co-investigators Thomas Russo, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine and professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and Nicholas Smith, PharmD, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacy practice in the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, played a key role developing the grant application.

Jan Kaur, PhD, research scientist, Katie Rose Boissonneault, PhD, research scientist, Jack Klem, PharmD student, Patricia Holden, senior research scientist, and Raymond Cha, PharmD, clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice, all at the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, generated the critical preliminary data that served as a catalyst for the application.

The early stages of the project, including the establishment of the research team, were supported by the UB Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence. 

“GEM provided the seed funding to build new bridges so that our R01 could be a leading example of team science at UB and across the U.S.,” says Sutton.

“I am so grateful to our incredible team of interdisciplinary scientists, students and investigators who had to think outside of the box to propose new strategies to combat resistance. Without them, none of this would be possible. They deserve all the credit,” says Tsuji.