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Researchers see weakness in MRSA’s resilience

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more MRSA-related bacterial infections are occurring every year, resulting in over 75,000 cases in the U.S., causing around 10,000 deaths annually.

What begins as a pink bump, often mistaken for a pimple, turns into a sore that resembles a red crater of blackened puss. Left untreated, MRSA can spread into the body and infect the organs, ultimately resulting in death.

What makes MRSA scary to doctors, however, is that treatment options are dwindling and the increasingly drug-resistant bacteria has evolved against antibiotic vancomycin — long considered the best treatment against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said USF microbiologist Lindsey “Les” Shaw. “The issue that we’re having is that bacteria like MRSA are extremely drug resistant. If you check the medicine counter it’s pretty bare at the moment.” 

Nearly five years of research is beginning to come together for Shaw, who has helped develop a potential antibiotic to fight MRSA.

Since their research started, Shaw and his team have tested millions of compounds in search of the three to five containing antibiotic activity against MRSA that earned them a patent late last year. 

Besides lectures at USF, Shaw presents his research in both the local area and around the world. At the conclusion of each discussion, individuals affected by MRSA bacteria approach Shaw to thank him for the work he is doing toward a cure. 

“When I talk to people that have been touched by MRSA it’s sobering because I spend so much time thinking about this bacteria,” Shaw said. “You really get a sense of perspective about the serious nature of the problem, and it kind of re-energizes and renews the need for you to keep striving toward making a difference and developing treatments.”

Many of these individuals have no idea that when Shaw was 13 years old, he too suffered from a MRSA infection. The main infected area surrounded Shaw’s hip, so much so that he was forced to get hip pins. Doctors told him that he would have to undergo more treatment for the rest of his life. 

“To me this is very personal,” Shaw said. “I really care about the lack of therapeutics and want to add more help for others.”

In December 2014, Shaw’s team received a patent for their modified quinazoline, a class of compounds used to treat malaria and cancer. USF chemists believe that quinazoline-based compounds have potential antibacterial properties that could effectively eradicate MRSA.

Much of the physical testing has been done by students who have worked with Shaw for the last five years, such as graduate assistant Whittney Burda.

As a microbiology major, Burda saw her undergraduate program offered elective credit for research hours. Shaw was the only professor researching bacterial pathogenicity at USF when Burda started, so she soon began working within his lab that applied to her desired area of work.  

As part of the newly received patent, both Shaw and a USF chemist were awarded the rights, along with two graduate assistants. Burda was thrilled to learn that she would be credited by   Shaw after all the work she had been through. 

“The most intriguing part of all of this is the prospect of having a new drug on the market in the next couple of years,” Burda said. “This is definitely the most exciting part of my graduate work so far.”

Should the team ever manage to sell their findings and generate money, the graduate students will be equal partners and receive compensation. 

While Shaw is working within his office on writing up the team’s findings, Burda is alongside more than 10 other students doing the benchwork for the research.

In Shaw’s nearly eight years at USF, he has trained over 50 graduate students.

“Students are the ones that do the work,” Shaw said. “I might come up with the projects but they’re the hands that get the job done.”  

Although the team is making progress, the next five years will prove most important in the development process. With the patent now protected by USF, Shaw and his team can continue to develop their findings further in hopes of clinical trials in the near future.

“There’s something special here at USF that sets us apart from other labs around the country,” Shaw said. “We have unique, talented people that do this type of work. USF is very focused on informational medicine, taking academic investigation and turning it into successful treatment for humans. That’s what we’re on our way to do here.”