Bacterial infection takes hold in the body when a pathogenic microorganism delivers toxins to healthy cells. One way bacteria accomplish this is by releasing vesicles, which act as tiny envelopes transporting toxins and other virulence factors to host cells. These toxins allow the bacteria to “make themselves at home” in cells.

In the search for alternatives to antibiotics, researchers are exploring untraditional infection treatments that focus on these virulence factors as prime targets.

Angela Brown, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh, describes the alternative route this way: “Instead of killing bacteria, we make them really uncomfortable, giving the immune system time to mount a strong response.”

Working in her independent lab at Lehigh, Brown is pioneering a unique approach that, unlike previous methods targeting virulence factors, has the potential to apply to a broad range of pathogens. She and her team are focused on a novel target: outer membrane vesicles—which are regularly shed by Gram negative bacteria, among the most challenging type of bacteria to treat.

Her work has caught the attention of the National Science Foundation, which recently awarded her an NSF CAREER grant to fund the development of this transformative approach. The prestigious $500,000 grant supports untenured faculty pursuing solutions to major challenges through research and teaching.

During the five-year grant period, Brown and her team will seek to identify shared delivery mechanisms common among Gram negative bacteria in order to develop broad-range antibacterial molecules that will radically change the way the medical practitioners fight pathogenic bacteria.

In addition, Brown plans extensive outreach activities to help improve antibiotic stewardship by teaching the dangers of antibiotic misuse to K-12 students. She will also develop new courses at Lehigh and provide undergraduate and graduate research opportunities that encourage young women to choose STEM majors and pursue related technical careers.

Brown joined Lehigh’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in January 2014 after a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Pennsylvania in the School of Dental Medicine. At Lehigh she has been honored with a P.C. Rossin Professorship, awarded to young faculty members who show significant career potential and a proven ability to reach out to other disciplines.

Read the full story at the Lehigh University News Center.

-Lori Friedman is the Director of Media Relations with Lehigh University's Office of Communications and Public Affairs.