Texas A&M University biologist Joseph Sorg will be studying fecal samples from hundreds of people as part of a federally backed effort to deal with the gut bacteria Clostridium difficile, the cause of about 14,000 deaths a year in the United States.
The effort is aimed at helping lay the foundation to develop drugs to combat the deadly bacteria.
Sorg and two other researchers are being funded by a two-year, $275,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Sorg, an assistant professor in A&M's Department of Biology since 2010, is among a wave of younger researchers studying C. difficile as it has gained more attention in the U.S. in recent years.
The bacteria cause infections primarily during hospital visits, when antibiotics alter the composition of microbial flora in the colon and make patients, most commonly the elderly, vulnerable to infection.
Death can occur in the most severe cases, but usually C. difficile infection results in severe diarrhea which unleashes dormant spores that are immune to antibiotic treatment.
Although antibiotics successfully treat the active C. difficile infection, patients are left susceptible to recurring infections.
Beyond the psychological and physical toll on its victims, C. difficile is an economic burden: A 2011 University of Pittsburgh study estimated that costs related to infections exceed $1.8 billion.
"If you talk to people who have C. diff and are relapsing, they are miserable," Sorg said. "We want to make sure that we can eventually treat people and prevent them from relapsing, or even keep them from becoming infected in the first place. C. diff is one of the most common hospital-acquired infections now, so it's a big problem in the U.S. and other industrialized nations."
Sorg and his postdoctoral mentor at Tufts University, Abraham Sonenshein, have started a company to commercialize their research, Spordiff Therapeutics, in an effort to create a drug that would prevent the dormant spores from growing and causing disease, a process called germination.
The human body produces two types of signals -- two different bile acids -- that act on the C. difficile spore, one that activates germination and another which inhibits the process.