Killing off MRSA, the super bacteria

November 25, 2014

In the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering and physics, 11 Northwest Nazarene University professors guided 36 students through a summer of research this last June, July and August. One of those projects involved Savanah Edwards (Middleton, Idaho), Taylor Simmons (Middleton, Idaho) and Boone Rhinehart (Boise, Idaho) as they strategized their battle against MRSA (pronounced Mursa)–the super bacteria.

"This is my first year as a research student, and I am learning so much in Dr. Nixon's lab." Savanah Edwards is going to be a junior biology major come fall. After graduating, she is hoping to join Idaho State University's physician assisting program. "I would love to travel and do mission work with my degree for a while. Then I want to settle down in a smaller practice here in my home state of Idaho."

Taylor Simmons is also a first-year researcher with sights set on the medical field. "Research is fundamentally important to my chosen career path; therefore, this opportunity will better prepare me for scenarios I will face in medical school and as a physician." Taylor has a love for Idaho, and after medical school wants to be a doctor in rural areas of the state.

The veteran of the group is Boone Rhinehart. This is his second year in summer research. "Working on this project has given me skills I will certainly carry into med school. I've made many mistakes, but I've learned from them," Boone says with a playful roll of his eyes recalling the litany of procedures and the demanding detail required while in the lab. Boone aims to attend University of Washington's School of Medicine to become a pediatrician.

As the experienced voice on the team, Boone explains their campaign against MRSA, but not without his characteristic flourish. Boone is tall, made taller by his standing, with almost-blonde hair. His smile is infectious; his small talk is genuine; and he is instantly anyone's best friend. All three in the group are easy to get along with, but behind the smiles there are the brilliance and dedication of strategists. These three are at war.

"MRSA, or by its fancier name, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a super bacteria," explains Boone. "Normally, a Staph. infection is treated with a modern derivative of Penicillin called methicillin, but, over time, Staph. organisms have developed a resistance to methicillin, making it more difficult to treat. This resistance is what gives MRSA its name and the title super bacteria." 

The damage MRSA can cause to human flesh is well documented on a poster outside of the biology lab, but be warned, the images are not for those with weak stomachs.

"This project is of high importance. When we publish, it impacts medicine and other people's health."

Boone next explains the battle they recreate every day. "With enough antibiotics, MRSA can be eliminated, but sometimes patients don't receive a high enough dosage. This leaves strains of resistant bacteria behind for the patient's body to fight. What we do in the lab is simulate a MRSA infection that has been insufficiently treated with antibiotics. We then introduce white blood cells to the bacteria to combat the infection and analyze the aftermath."

The analysis takes into account the casualties on both sides of the battle and the concentration of cytokines, a protein excreted by white blood cells as a type of distress signal. The data tells them how patients may handle lingering infections after various, insufficient dosages. Results so far suggest that white blood cells have a more aggressive reaction to antibiotic-treated MRSA (Boone calls these the mutants) than un-treated MRSA bacteria. If results are verified, they hope to publish the findings later this year.

"We are all really excited to be working on this project, primarily due to its potential application to the medical field," says Boone.

"The project affects the healthcare field in a very tangible way, and I am blessed to be a part of the work that is being done," says Savanah. Taylor sums up by saying, "This project is of high importance. When we publish, it impacts medicine and other people's health."

For those who brave a glance at the MRSA poster outside the biology lab, know that the students working inside are making strides to prevent the loss of flesh and limbs in others that this devastating bacteria can cause. For three aspiring doctors, this is a summer well spent.