Treating Microbial Infections

Most infections involve colonization by more than one microbe. These polymicrobial infections generally result in poorer clinical outcomes due to enhanced resistance to conventional antimicrobials, resulting in health care cost of over $20 billion per year. UT Austin researchers have begun to uniquely elucidate the nature of these infections and develop novel therapeutic strategies. For example, College of Natural Sciences’ faculty, Drs. Shelley Payne and Jaquelin Dudley have examined how viral infection enhances susceptibility to bacterial pathogens.

Development of Antimicrobial Materials

While antibiotics are frequently considered the first line of containment for infections, there is increasing effort being devoted to stopping infections before they start. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the frequency of infections caused by surface-attached bacteria (biofilms) is as high as 65% to 80%.  Researchers at the university are developing materials that prevent colonization and persistence on indwelling medical devices such as catheters, heart valves, and prosthetic hip implants.  In addition, these advances can significantly reduce biofouling (the accumulation of microorganisms on wetted surfaces) in industrial settings, which has an economic impact estimated at $100 billion annually. Currently, Dr. Marvin Whiteley, the center’s director, is working with UT Austin chemists and engineers to develop surface coatings that prevent microbial attachment.

Exploiting the Immune Response to Infection

The human immune system is constantly active in combating disease. Researchers at the university have developed novel methods for assessing the immune response in minute, molecular detail, to the point where the concept of ‘herd immunity,’ one person’s immune response being used to treat or protect others, has become a reality. This groundbreaking research by UT Austin’s Drs. George Georgiou and Andrew Ellington is already forming the basis for the development of novel antibody products and vaccines.

Predicting Future Infections

Using computational modeling, UT Austin researchers have developed novel approaches to understanding how new diseases arise, and how humans are evolving to combat these infections. These results are providing us with a map of new infections before they even happen. For example, UT Austin scientists have shown that evolution of viral receptors in humans is rapidly evolving to limit zoonotic transmission of viruses. (Zoonotic diseases are diseases caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between animals and humans.)