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Student-led aspirin research leads to new discoveries

Student-led aspirin research leads to new discoveries

One solution to combating drug-resistant bacteria may lie in a Higley Hall laboratory.

Joan Slonczewski, Robert A. Oden, Jr. professor of biology, and the students working in her laboratory have won a $524,000 grant from the Molecular and Cellular Bioscience Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund their research for the next three years. Slonczewski said that, throughout her career, her students’ research has $3 million in grants from the NSF.

With this most recent grant, Slonczewski and her team will be able to further study how aspirin and related molecules such as benzoate can combat of drug-resistant bacteria.   

The NSF awarded the grant based on experiments conducted by students Kaitlin Creamer ’16,  Erick Ditmars ’18 and Karina Kunka ’19. The research began when Creamer started a project using Escherichia Coli, more commonly referred to as E. Coli. She diluted the E. Coli bacteria each day in benzoate, a type of organic acid that closely resembles the over-the-counter drug aspirin; food preservatives often contain benzoate. Slonczewski and her team made an interesting discovery.

“We expected mutations in acid tolerance, and we found some of that, but what we also found were mutations in drug resistance,” Slonczewski said.

In other words, long-term dilution of the E. Coli in benzoate was decreasing the bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics.

With this new-found knowledge, the team took their experiment a step further. Because the active form of benzoate in the human body is called salicylic acid, the team decided to test salicylic acid on their mutant bacteria.

Ditmars discovered the same effects: These diluted bacteria also showed a loss in drug resistance, suggesting that when aspirin is taken as a long-term treatment, such as for a heart condition, it also causes an individual’s bacteria to evolve and thereby lose drug resistance.

Armed with additional funding from the NSF, which will help pay for machinery and materials, Slonczewski and her lab team can contribute to this line of research.

“The lab is the defining part of my Kenyon experience,” Ditmars said. “I have been challenged to learn and grow as a member of this lab.”

by Caitlin Kennedy

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