GW Researchers Awarded $7 million in Grants to Study Microbiome and Disease Prevention

Two GW researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health will focus on bacteria affecting HIV transmission and dangerous staph infections.

Lance Price
Professor Lance Price of the Milken Institute School of Public Health will be the principal investigator for the studies of HIV transmission and staph infections.
June 27, 2016

The Milken Institute School of Public Health has received two grants totaling $7 million to study the human microbiome, the collection of bacteria and other microbes that live in and on the human body.

The first study, a $3.3 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will focus on the bacterial ecosystem of the penis and how it can affect a person’s risk for HIV infection.

An additional $3.7 million award from NIAID will focus on bacteria living in the nose. That study will aim to find strategies to protect people from serious staph infections.

The grants were awarded to Professor Lance Price and Assistant Research Professor Cindy Liu, who will serve as principal investigator and co-investigator, respectively, on the projects.

“These studies will tell us more about the colonies of microbes living in and on the human body,” said Dr. Price, who is also the director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center. “In both cases, we will be looking for ways to alter the microbiome and protect people from disease that can range from sexually transmitted HIV to potentially lethal superbug infections.”

A 2013 study by Dr. Liu, Dr. Price and others found that penis circumcision led to a drop in anaerobic bacteria. There’s evidence the decline in such bacteria might protect women from HIV, but the new study will look for a direct link in men.

Anaerobic bacteria dwindle after a circumcision because there is more oxygen and anaerobes need low-oxygen environments to thrive on the penis and elsewhere. If anaerobic bacteria play a role in the transmission of HIV, researchers might be able to develop ways of preventing infection.

The study’s findings could lead to ways to amplify protection against HIV for men—whether or not the individual is circumcised, Dr. Liu said.

The second award will study the bacteria that live in the human nasal cavity with the goal of finding new ways to prevent infections with Staphylococcus aureus and particularly a dangerous type of antibiotic-resistant staph called MRSA. While staph is a common inhabitant of the human nose, people who carry it are at increased risk of developing life-threatening staph infections.

In this project, Dr. Price, Dr. Liu and their collaborators will look to see if other bacteria living in the human nose may exclude the staph that is already residing there or potentially keep out this risky pathogen. Eventually, the research team hopes to find out whether they could identify and introduce bacteria capable of routing staph from the nose. The approach could protect people at risk of infection, especially with drug resistant forms of staph.

“If we are successful this probiotic approach could be used to prevent the spread of superbugs like MRSA and others that have become resistant to multiple antibiotics,” Dr. Liu said.

In addition to Dr. Price and Dr. Liu, the penile microbiome research team includes scientists from the Rakai Health Sciences Program, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine, as well as the University of Toronto.

The nasal microbiome research team also comprises scientists from the Statens Serum Institute, Northern Arizona University and the University of Texas Medical Branch.