Rowan students helping to change the future of medicine

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Through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Rowan University students are researching ways to improve antibiotics by replacing current prescription drugs with naturally occurring parts of the immune system.

Through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Rowan University students are researching ways to improve antibiotics by replacing current prescription drugs with naturally occurring parts of the immune system.

An increase in prescribed antibiotic medication has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“The development of resistance to small-molecule and synthetic antimicrobials is a major public health concern, both in its annual death toll and its potential to develop ‘superbugs’ or bacterial strains which are resistant to multiple last-line antibiotics,” said Dr. Greg Caputo, the Rowan assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who heads the research.

However, bacteria have not yet been able to develop resistance to host defense peptides, innate molecules in the immune system.

Students have been examining peptides on a chemical level to determine what makes one a good bacterial killer but not another.

The student researchers include seniors Frank Dunzello, 22, of Middleton, and Travis Magdaleno, 21, of Blackwood; juniors Michael Coletta, 21, of Marmora; Theodora Maravegias, 20, of Ridgefield Park; and Sarah Misenko, 20, of Mt. Laurel; and sophomore Angela Picciano, 20, of Swedesboro.

“I've been studying the shape of an antimicrobial peptide (AMP) when it attaches to the membrane,” said Magdaleno. “It converts from random orientation to an α-helix, which looks like a spring. In some cases, multiple AMPs penetrate the membrane, arrange into a circle and form a pore, which releases cellular contents and kills the cells. We hope to find an AMP that attaches to the bacterial cell membrane with a faster, stronger bind and is more effective at killing bacteria.”

Researchers will eventually apply this information to small molecules and potentially develop new therapeutics.

The project is producing so much data that students have already presented findings at conferences. “Scholars outside of Rowan are amazed at the quality and quantity of research done by our undergraduates,” said Caputo. 

The research provided internal collaborations with the Physics and Mechanical Engineering programs. Caputo is in initial talks to work with infectious disease specialists in Cooper University Hospital to test some of his peptides on clinically derived bacteria.

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