The research performed in the lab of Chris Reid, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Science and Technology, does more than advance science – it could one day save lives. Working in partnership with colleagues at Brown University, Professor Reid’s team recently received a provisional patent for a promising antibacterial compound they’ve developed.
This patent is the culmination of more than a decade of work for Professor Reid. “I enjoy this work because it's challenging and it combines a little bit of so many different areas I'm interested in: organic chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, even microbiology,” says Reid, whose work has thus far resulted in four different patents, three of which come from his research at Bryant. “I have a very multi-disciplinary background, so this kind of project allows me to exploit my jack-of-all-trades type of training.”
For Biology major Joseph Prete ’21, who has worked with Reid for more than a year and is named as an inventor on the patent, taking part in the research has been a unique learning experience. “Working in the lab is very different from learning in the classroom,” he says. “You’re actually getting the chance to apply the concepts you learn.”
There’s also a thrill that comes with research and discovery, Prete notes. Something Reid once said to him in the lab has stuck in his head since. “He told me, ‘For a brief time, you might be the only person in the world who knows a certain thing.'”
“We're on the cusp of living in the post-antibiotic world, because we're running out of antibiotics that are actually clinically useful.”
For a better world
Reid and Prete’s research addresses a crucial need. A key element in combating disease and illness, many commonly used antibacterial agents are no longer as effective as they once were because of rising antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that at least a quarter of a million illnesses and 23,000 deaths over the past year in the U.S. were due to antibiotic resistance. A report published in 2009 by the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics estimated that treating antibiotic-resistant infections costs more than $20 billion per year.
“We're on the cusp of living in the post-antibiotic world, because we're running out of antibiotics that are actually clinically useful,” says Reid. “The prevalence of antibiotic-resistant infections is on the rise as well as infections that are caused by pathogens that are resistant to almost everything that we have.”
“You’re always trying to solve an unknown – and the answer usually comes out to be something that you don't expect.”
Pharmaceutical companies have little interest in developing new antibiotics, says Reid. “A sizable amount of the work in antibiotic development at the moment is done in academic labs,” he says. Conducting such high-level research is expensive, and is becomingly increasingly challenging for Reid's lab to secure the funding needed to continue its important work. “Industry does not see enough of a profit in developing new antibiotics, so it falls to us to do a lot of the groundwork,” he notes.
It’s unclear if their work will ultimately result in a new and better antibiotic but the researchers are hopeful. “There are 10,000 ways this research can go in the future,” says Prete. “We just hope that, in the end, the research we do can be used to help people.”
The lab’s recent provisional patent revolves around manipulating and creating compounds to develop better antibiotics, and is the latest step in more than 10 years of research. “We’re making changes to the structure of the compound" to see if it can be made more potent, broadens the spectrum of bacteria it targets, and improves pharmaceutical properties, explains Reid.
“There’s no roadmap. We’re deciding the approach ourselves."
That work takes trial and error, says Prete. “You’re always trying to solve an unknown – and the answer usually comes out to be something that you don't expect,” he states. “You can hypothesize about certain things and make predictions, but you don’t really know the result until you’re done.”
In applying for a patent, researchers need to show their work is “novel” and substantially different than what has come before. That means ingenuity, and trying things that no one has ever done. “There’s no roadmap,” notes Prete. “We’re deciding the approach ourselves.”
Adding stepping stones
In addition to the scientific and potential medical benefits of the research, it’s also a prime opportunity for learning. “The lion’s share of the research is done by undergrads,” says Reid, who notes that generations of students have left their mark on the lab’s projects. As for this most recent patent, “Joe contributed in a substantial way to the intellectual development of the patent. The work he did this past summer was integral.”
“Every finding that you make is important because it influences everyone else's work who comes after you.”
Prete, who is preparing to take his Medical College Admission Test and is considering a career as an anesthesiologist, began volunteering in Reid's lab in fall 2018, creating some of the compounds being used in the teaching labs. From there he was recruited to continue with Professor Reid’s lab through the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program, which provides funded research opportunities to undergraduates exploring the sciences.
Working in the lab, Prete says, has helped him anchor the concepts he’s learned by working with high-level equipment like a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. Professor Reid and the more experienced students working in the lab are valuable mentors.
Prete is proud to be part of the Reid lab tradition. “Every finding that you make is important because it influences the work of everyone who comes after you,” he notes. “You get closer and closer the more you figure out. It’s like you're adding stepping stones in trying to get to the answer.”