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Communicating science: Read Pukkila-Worley studies antibiotic resistance in bacterial infection

As an infectious disease physician-scientist, Read Pukkila-Worley, MD, is often asked to see patients to help figure out complex medical issues. In his lab, Dr. Pukkila-Worley works to understand how bacteria cause disease and how the immune system detects an infection.

“As a group, infectious disease physicians are famous for taking detailed, nuanced histories from patients and performing careful physical exams to search for clues to an underlying diagnosis of a mysterious illness,” said Pukkila-Worley, associate professor of medicine. “They then form a hypothesis about the situation and develop a strategy to test it in order to make a diagnosis.”

His approach to research is similar. His lab studies the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which makes people sick when their immune systems are weakened as a result of cancer treatment or other inflammatory conditions. People in the hospital are at particular risk for acquiring this infection, which can be resistant to antibiotics.

The Pukkila-Worley lab found that the immune system can intercept signals of communication sent between bacteria during infection and activate protective immune defenses. This research led to the identification of a receptor protein in the host that senses these pathogen-derived phenazine metabolites to activate host immune defenses.

“Armed with this knowledge, we can potentially develop new treatments for infectious diseases that can intercept signals of communications sent between bacteria during an infection,” he said. “In this way, our research of basic mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions has the potential to benefit people all over the world.”

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