Tasked with helping solve the greatest public health emergency of our time, a group of Marymount University students proved themselves to be more than up to the challenge.
Seventeen Marymount Saints, led by Biochemistry Professor Dr. Amanda Wright, entered the Small World Initiative’s sixth annual Do Something about Antibiotics Challenge during the Fall 2021 semester. After pursuing antibiotic research and hosting three events on campus to raise awareness about the antibiotic crisis, the team was notified earlier this month that it won one of the few available prizes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As part of their prize, participating students had the opportunity to attend a NIH career webinar to explore potential careers available within and beyond the nation’s medical research agency. They will also receive signed certificates from Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President.
“Our judges found your entry to be incredibly engaging and creative, and thought that it proved to be a powerful educational tool for your community,” wrote Erika Kurt, President and CEO of the Small World Initiative. “Now, more than ever, it is incredibly important to promote good behaviors to reduce the risk of transmitting infectious diseases and to share when and how to best use antibiotics. Thank you for using your creativity to be part of the solution!”
The Do Something about Antibiotics Challenge is a collaboration between the Small World Initiative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the NIH, the Sociedad Española de Microbiología and other partners to raise awareness about the dangers of antibiotic resistance – when bacteria stop responding to the drugs designed to kill them. This is primarily caused by inappropriate antibiotic use, as antibiotics should only be prescribed for bacterial infections – treating viruses such as the common cold, flu or COVID-19 with antibiotics increases the possibility of antibiotic resistance, which places everyone at risk from even mild infections.
Known as “superbugs,” they cause more than 2.8 million illnesses and 35,000 confirmed deaths each year just in the U.S. alone, according to the CDC – and due to underreporting, the real annual death toll domestically is estimated to be more than 153,000. Superbugs are also believed to be complicating the COVID-19 pandemic, as initial studies show that most COVID patients are prescribed antibiotics even though the overall proportion of bacterial co-infection is low.
“There are predictions that if we don’t do anything, we’re looking at hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide as a result of these multi-drug resistant bacteria,” Dr. Wright explained. “The other problem is that we also have a diminishing supply of antibiotics because they’re not terribly profitable for drug companies – so in the last 40 years, we have not identified any new classes of antibiotics. We’re primed for a major health crisis when it comes to these bacterial infections.”
Upon hearing about the Do Something about Antibiotics Challenge last summer, Dr. Wright led the effort to start a research project at Marymount that could involve numerous students for the submission of the University’s first-ever entry in the Challenge. The student-faculty team focused its research on identifying potential new sources of antibiotics from soil samples right underneath our feet.
“We would take soil samples, grow them in the lab and isolate the bacteria from the soil in order to test it against ‘escape relatives,’ or safe versions of really nasty pathogenic bacteria that cause death and disease,” Dr. Wright said. “We’ve been successful so far at finding isolates that show antimicrobial properties, and we’ll continue to test those and investigate those strains.”
To raise awareness among the Marymount community, the team then planned a week-long campaign in November with three separate events on campus. These included decorating cookies to look like petri dishes with growing bacteria, a tie-dye mask event outside the Lee Center and a ‘Paint and Sip’ event in which Saints could paint either a superbug or a superhero.
“The students really owned this whole contest,” Dr. Wright added. “They came up with the ideas, they drove it forward, invited their friends to these events. I was just in the background and really proud to see how invested they were in this challenge.”