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Ellison, Lobo and 34 Student Co-Authors Publish Antibiotic Resistance Research

With the COVID-19 pandemic on the top of everyone’s minds it’s important to still recognize the increasingly problematic situation with antibiotic resistance around the world. At Ursinus, this is a topic that Mark Ellison, a professor of chemistry, and Anthony Lobo, an associate professor of biology and co-coordinator of the biochemistry and molecular biology program, are very familiar with.

On April 2, the scholars’ long-awaited research paper, titled Functionalized Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes and Nanographene Oxide to Overcome Antibiotic Resistance in Tetracycline-Resistant Escherichia coli was published by the American Chemical Society.

The paper is the culmination of nine years of collaborative work. At the intersection of biology and chemistry, the research has combined elements from both to complete a common goal. There are 34 current and former student co-authors credited alongside Ellison and Lobo for the research paper that has been nearly a decade in the making.

In May 2011, Matt Chorney ’13 spent his Summer Fellows research time continuing the work of Greg Lewis ’11, who was looking into attaching antiviral drugs to nanotubes with a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The work was cut short but luckily picked up again in Ellison’s lab testing tetracycline with three bacteria strains provided by Lobo.

“The research found that two related carbon nanomaterials, graphene (a sheet of carbon atoms that are arranged in hexagons) and carbon nanotubes (a graphene sheet rolled up into a tube that’s 10,000 times thinner than a human hair) could deliver tetracycline to E. coli that is resistant to it,” Ellison explained, “The nanotubes and graphene with tetracycline were able to inhibit the bacteria and, importantly, the amount of tetracycline they delivered was less than the amount of straight tetracycline needed to stop the bacteria from growing.”

This means that the nanomaterials were able to successfully help the antibiotic overcome antibiotic resistance in bacteria and that lower amounts of the antibiotic could be used with the nanomaterials, an important factor when antibiotic overuse is such a big problem.

Regan Newman ’21 joined the research lab as a sophomore interested in both biology and chemistry and quickly found her niche. “My experience in this lab has been nothing short of amazing and I have gained such a rich understanding of biochemistry and the science behind antibiotic resistance,” she shared, adding, “Having a hands-on experience with things that I am learning about in the classroom, and seeing real results has truly aided me in growing as a scientist. This research has given me an even stronger passion for science.”

As one of the named co-authors, Newman was excited for the research to finally be published. “When I received the news that our paper was accepted for publication, I started dancing in my room because I knew that all of our hard work had paid off and that Dr. Lobo and Dr. Ellison were finally being recognized for their years of persistence and dedication to this project.”

Newman hopes to continue researching this topic both at Ursinus and beyond, noting that now more than ever it is important to focus on combating antibiotic resistance.

“Publishing this research is important because it recognizes the very hard work of all the students who were involved in the project. It’s a real achievement for an undergraduate student to be a co-author on a publication, so it’s very exciting for them,” Ellison said.

Ellison and Lobo were able to work in the labs alongside their students for this research, something Lobo said was a gratifying experience. “It was hard work, but it was fun to be in the lab.”

A dozen students are working on the next phase of the research taking a look at ciprofloxacin, a different antibiotic that is resisted by bacteria in a different way than tetracycline. “The bigger picture here is that we are facing a crisis in the fact that bacteria resist multiple antibiotics and some people get infections that we just can’t treat,” explained Lobo.

There are still plenty of questions to be asked and answered regarding antibiotic resistance in their lab and Ellison and Lobo anticipate student interest to continue. —By Mary Lobo ’15