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iPATH/VII Seminar Series: Dr. Graham Hatfull @UCSD

In my experience, I’ve found that eggplants are a pretty divisive fruit. (I mean, right off the bat it’s one of those plants that people will confuse or refer interchangeably as “fruit” or “vegetable”.) Some people love eating them (like me!) while other people cite the texture or bitterness of the fruit as reasons to avoid it. I think we can all agree though, that “life-saving” isn’t typically a descriptor we would give this food item.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened in late 2017 when Dr. Graham Hatfull and his team at the University of Pittsburg used “Muddy” (a phage isolated from soil beneath a rotting eggplant) and 2 other phages to save the life of a 15-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis (CF).

Pictured: Isabelle, left (the patient, now age 17) and her mother (right). Picture from NPR, courtesy Jo Holdaway.

Cystic fibrosis is a disease commonly studied in the phage therapy world because it’s a genetic disorder in which the overproduction of mucus leads to persistent bacterial lung infections. In this specific patient’s case, the young girl had received a double lung transplant (often a necessary procedure for patients with CF) but the organ and other regions of her body were subsequently infected by a strain of antibiotic resistant Mycobacterium abscessus (a pathogenic bacteria) and the outlook was grim.

Graham and his team identified three phages in the SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) database as ones that were capable of curbing the bacteria infection. What was even more exciting was that he and his team were able to safely genetically engineer two of those phages to become more effective at killing the bacteria. With the 3-phage-cocktail produced, purified, and sent from the lab to a London hospital, the patient’s infection was successfully treated and she returned to school and life as normal. (She’s even adopted a puppy!!!)

Last week, Graham Hatfull was our third iPATH/VII (Viral Information Institute) seminar speaker (see Seminar 1 and Seminar 2 for articles on the first two) and we spent an exciting two days meeting and hearing from the man of the hour.

Dr. Hatfull’s talk at UCSD reminded us once more of the complexities in taking phages from the lab to the clinic—especially given the timeline within which his work would be able to help the patient. We also learned more about exactly how he studies phage-bacterium interactions and the method(s) with which he engineered the two phages to become more suitable for clinical use.

Pictured: Dr. Graham Hatfull speaking at UCSD.

The following day, Graham came to SDSU and he and our lab conversed about phages in a more intimate setting. Graham had some great insight into some of the projects happening in our lab and also shared with us more thoughts concerning the “future directions” of phage therapy. Important questions like “when is phage monotherapy (the use of only a single phage for treating an infection) appropriate”, “what ongoing treatment(s) do recipients of phage therapy require”, and even nuances like “how best do we store/transport phage” were discussed.

Nothing says California like sunshine and burgers. Pictured are Graham and SDSU Graduate Students.

His visit to SDSU culminated in a student luncheon with myself and others from SDSU’s Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) Joint Doctoral Program (JDP). The most exciting thing about talking to Graham is that despite all the attention he’s received from the press lately, he still shows genuine interest in the science that undergraduates and graduate students in other labs. (He’s also a really (ph)unny guy.) We learned more about the SEA-PHAGES program, its inception, goals, and future directions. SEA-PHAGES promotes hands-on undergraduate research worldwide by providing a platform and system by which undergraduates learn how to isolate phages from various environments. (EX: Muddy!) Not only that, the phages are sequenced and stored at the University of Pittsburgh where they not only add to an expanding knowledge of phages but can also be used to screen for effective phages for phage therapy cases.

Last week was a real scientific (and burger-y) treat and I can’t wait to see what the next seminar will bring!

- Tiffany

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