UM Professor Earns Two Grants for Infection Prevention Research

December 14, 2017

MISSOULA – Patrick Secor, a new assistant professor in the University of Montana’s Division of Biological Sciences, recently won two grants for his research on the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Secor, who holds a doctorate in biological sciences and began work at UM in July, earned a Career Transition Award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for $250,000 over two years. The award – which assists young scientists who are transitioning from a mentored position, such as a postdoctoral fellow, to independent faculty – will allow Secor to conduct research, hire researchers and purchase key pieces of equipment.

Secor also earned a Transformational Award from the Falk Medical Research Trust. The Falk award, which is worth $1 million over two years, is split among Secor and researchers at Stanford, Ohio State and Baylor universities. The funding will go toward helping develop a human vaccine against the pathogen P. aeruginosa, which can cause infection in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, non-healing wounds and many other hospital-acquired infections.

 “This proposal to develop novel vaccines against P. aeruginosa addresses a critical, unmet clinical need and, if successful, will have a great impact on human health,” Secor said.

Chronic bacterial infections, especially those affecting the airways of people with cystic fibrosis, wounds, burns or medical transplants, typically do not respond to prolonged antibiotic treatments. P. aeruginosa forms biofilms – slimy layers of bacteria and polymers that allow the pathogen to stick to catheters and other surfaces, as well as resist both antibiotics and the host immune response. Many strains of P. aeruginosa are infected with filamentous viruses, or bacteriophage. When P. aeruginosa forms a biofilm, filamentous bacteriophage make bacteria in biofilms longer-lived, more adherent to surfaces and more tolerant to antibiotics and the immune system.

Through the Falk award, Secor and his colleagues will optimize a vaccine and therapeutic antibody targeting filamentous bacteriophage to help treat or prevent bacterial infections. The group has developed a vaccine and antibody against P. aeruginosa infections in mice, and future work will focus on the underlying mechanisms so that therapeutics can eventually be tested in human clinical trials.

In his own research, Secor will focus on how the high polymer concentrations found at sites of chronic infection affect P. aeruginosa and its antibiotic tolerance.

"Bacteria often occupy environments crowded with macromolecules like polymers – think about pus, mucus, dental plaque or even environmental biofilms that form on slippery river rocks or stagnant ponds,” Secor said.  

According to Secor, although researchers have studied how bacteria and polymers interact, little is known about how bacteria sense and respond to crowded, polymer-rich environments. The Career Transition Award will fund this research.

“By understanding this fundamental interaction, I hope to lay the groundwork for the discovery of new therapeutic strategies to treat or prevent bacterial infections,” Secor said.

Contact: Patrick Secor, assistant professor, UM Division of Biological Sciences, 406-243-2614, patrick.secor@umontana.edu.