Two recent grants awarded to GW chemistry faculty situate the department on the forefront of practical research.
By Menachem Wecker
If Cynthia Dowd has anything to say about it, tuberculosis may have to learn a lesson from the Borg of Star Trek fame: “Resistance is futile.”
Though TB is notorious for adapting to and resisting drug treatments, Dr. Dowd, assistant professor of chemistry, will have the opportunity, with the help of a major grant from the National Institutes of Health, to take a take a novel approach at treating the disease, which infects about a third of the world population.
The NIH grant – coupled with a $1.2 million Department of Energy award won by Christopher Cahill, associate professor of chemistry, in May – reflect GW’s standing as a leader in scientific research.
“Drs. Dowd and Cahill are part of a pattern of incredibly creative, young investigators who are bringing new ideas to serious problems in energy and the environment, health, sustainability and security,” says Michael King, professor of chemistry and chair of the department.
The two recent grants also showcase the department’s focus on “translational research,” or inquiry with a practical application, Dr. King says. Several GW chemistry professors hold patents – “the ultimate in translation from the bench to the practical world,” he adds.
“Dr. Cahill is looking at the practical problems related to nuclear waste storage and, at a more fundamental research level, the behavior of radioactive materials,” Dr. King says. “And Dr. Dowd’s research examines an old problem with new eyes and through new pathways.”
Pathways are the same metaphor Dr. Dowd uses to explain her research. One can imagine the current drugs used to treat TB as roadways to a cure blockaded by resistant strains of bacteria. Dr. Dowd believes she has found fertile ground to build a new anti-TB superhighway.
Dr. Dowd’s approach, which she is working on with Fatah Kashanchi and Kylene Kehn-Hall at the GW Medical Center and Helena Boshoff at NIH, involves developing a strategy to alter the structure of antibiotic molecules not previously examined for TB treatment. The key molecule, fosmidomycin, is being altered to make it specifically target TB. In so doing, she hopes to overcome resistance to the current regimen of the antibiotics and develop a novel class of therapeutics.
The NIH award is a Challenge Grant in Health and Science Research, which is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Dr. Dowd was one of about 200 awardees selected from a pool of more than 20,000 applicants. The NIH has designated $200 million in 2009 and 2010 for the grants.
According to the NIH Web site, challenge grants support “rigorous” evaluations of “the impact of different options that are available for treating a given medical condition for a particular set of patients.” Studies can compare similar drugs or examine different approaches, according to the site.
“Dr. Dowd’s achievement here is being in the top 1 percent applicants at NIH,” Dr. King says. “Given the rigor of the peer-review process, it really says something about her accomplishments and the critical nature of the problem that she is addressing.”