Friday, March 27, 2015

Hunting Viruses: LETU's Partnership with Howard Hughes Medical Institute

­Introducing Dr. Gregory Frederick: He’s recently joined LETU as Professor and Department Chair of biology. He has 35 years of experience as a biologist, has been professionally published dozens of times, serves on editorial boards of three scientific journals, and has received multiple professional awards. He’s now helping LETU biology students get an extreme head start on their futures as scientists in health-related fields.

In 2008, the renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland started the Science Education Alliance (SEA) to give college students the opportunity to do hands-on research in lab settings. With only about 80 higher education institutions worldwide accepted to participate, the program is very exclusive.
Dr. Gregory Frederick

“HHMI realized it’s important to get undergrad students involved in research as quickly as possible,” Frederick said.  “That’s what this program is about.”

LeTourneau University’s biology program was recently accepted in this exclusive number. SEA offers several different programs, and LETU will be participating in their Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (PHAGES) project over the 2015-2016 school year.

“A phage is a virus that attacks bacteria. I explain it like we’re training virus hunters,” Frederick said. “Students are going to go out and find new viruses. That gets them pretty excited because we’re implementing it in the lab of our general biology course. They’ll get the experience immediately in their freshman year.”

This research program content will be incorporated with Frederick's general biology course in Fall 2015. To clarify the importance of this project, Frederick cites the well-known problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“There are a lot of bacterial strains that are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Most everyone realizes that. The problem is that making a new antibiotic takes a lot of time. During that time, that bacteria we’re trying to treat mutates,” Frederick explained.

It’s very difficult to treat bacteria that have a tendency to mutate, Frederick explains. The antibiotic doesn’t change once it enters the body, but the organism it’s working to treat does, rendering the antibiotic ineffective. Some disease organisms have the genetic makeup that causes them to mutate more quickly than others, one being the organism that causes tuberculosis.

That’s where the LETU “virus hunter” students come in via the PHAGES program. Frederick does point out that they will not be handling any bacterium or viruses that have the potential to harm humans. Their research may, however, help solve the problem of drug-resistant bacterium by researching viruses that attack the TB-causing bacteria.

“The students will be isolating viruses that can kill a cousin of the organism that causes TB,” Frederick said. “The cool part is, when you throw a virus at a bacterium, the bacterium may mutate, but so does the virus. So as the bacterium mutates, the virus is also throwing off new strains that hopefully will be able to infect the bacterium that change. It’s an interesting therapy with lots of potential, and we’re going to see it more and more in medical therapy down the road.”

This opportunity will allow freshman bio students to learn a wealth of new skills as they complete their research. They will collect virus samples, characterize them using an electron microscope, purify and separate them to get a pure culture of one virus type, and extract the virus’ DNA material—and that’s just in the first semester.

Over Christmas break, the DNA samples will be sent to HHMI to be sequenced. In the second semester, Frederick and his bio students will use that data for further characterization, using software to identify and annotate the genes. That way, they’ll be able to determine the virus’ capabilities. It’s an area of research that Frederick says very few undergraduate students have the opportunity to take on.

Frederick is confident that getting students involved in research and equipping them with the skills that PHAGES requires will get them excited to execute further research later in college. The course isn’t for the faint of heart, though. It’s a two-hour, twice-a-week lab that requires more outside work than most general biology courses.

“It’s real research, and research takes time,” Frederick said.

That work will pay off. Students will present their research during at least one scientific conference, and their DNA sequence research will also be published in an international database, with their names permanently attached. If the virus they’re working with hasn’t previously been discovered, there’s a strong possibility that their work will be published in a scientific journal.

Again, that’s all work that will be done during freshman year. The possibilities afforded by this kind of experience so early in a student’s career will prepare him or her for an abundance of notable future opportunities.  PHAGES embodies the heart of LETU: to equip students to excel in their fields with ingenuity while making a positive impact across the globe.