Story posted November 04, 2008
The large bowl of candy in her office should be a tipoff: Danielle Dube likes her sugar.
Dube, who joined the Bowdoin faculty in 2007, is studying a unique sugar found on bacteria that can cause gastric ulcers and cancer in humans. Through her work with undergraduate researchers, she hopes to develop novel therapeutic approaches to stop the culprit, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), which is developing marked resistance to some antibiotics.
“For anyone who is trying to develop an antibiotic, it’s a constant war because these bacteria are always developing resistance,” notes Dube. “Chemists are battling to come up with new, smarter ways to kill off bacteria or other pathogens. I like thinking about how I could outsmart the bacteria. In my lab, we are developing a method that may be useful for generating many types of antibiotics.”
All living organisms have sugars that reside on cell surfaces. However, elevated levels of certain sugars can be indicators of malignant cells, such as breast cancer tissue.
In the case of H. pylori, its unique sugar is not only a biomarker of disease, it’s directly tied to H. pylori’s ability to be a pathogen—to infect human stomachs and survive. That’s because the sugar helps the bacteria to form hair-like structures, called flagella, which let H. pylori swim so that they can colonize the stomach wall.
Dube and her student research assistants are working on developing a synthetic compound that would disrupt the formation of flagella. The H. pylori cells would then be unable to colonize the stomach and would slough away.
“What we do in my lab is a very interesting mix of chemistry and biology,” notes Dube. “There is a niche for many types of students in the lab. Some of them are synthetic chemists: They work in a hood with flasks and different reagents to develop synthetic molecules that could be therapeutics.
“Students working on the biology side grow H. pylori under lab conditions that simulate those found in the human stomach. Then they take the compounds that the synthetic chemistry students make, feed them to the bacteria, and follow their metabolic fate.”
It’s too early for Dube to have any definitive data, but she is hopeful that her work will ultimately become part of an effective therapy for ulcers, and even stomach cancer.
“Academic labs play an important role in therapeutic development,” Dube says. “In the early stages, academic labs ask the questions: Is this a good target? Is this a possible approach to curing an ailment? Whatever we do in my lab is not likely to be “The Drug” that is marketed by a pharmaceutical industry—that process takes 15-20 years—but we might be able to put out an idea in the literature that spurs the development of those new antibiotics.”
Dube says the applied aspect of her work has strong appeal for students considering a pre-med career. “Students understand why what we’re doing in the lab is important and how they personally can have an impact on something in the world. They say, ‘Wow! It’s amazing that the research here at Bowdoin is addressing such an interesting problem and that I can be part of it.’ “
Dube plans to publish preliminary data from her research next year, with several Bowdoin students as co-authors.
Before I went to college, I thought everything in science was known. When you read science books you learn about what people already know. When I conducted research as an undergraduate, I found out that there are a million questions still out there: in chemistry, biology, physics. I had a fantastic undergraduate research experience at Cornell and realized that when I was doing research, I was discovering answers to questions. That’s what excites me about science, and that thrill of discovery is what I strive to instill in students at Bowdoin. The quality of science that occurs here is impressive and I think that undergraduates are far more likely to undertake a research project of their own because of close interactions with professors. — Danielle H. Dube