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USF Researcher Awarded NIH Outstanding Investigator Grant for Understanding and Limiting Bacterial Proliferation

Prahathees Eswara, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida’s Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology, has recently been awarded an Outstanding Investigator grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH). He is the first faculty member from USF to receive this prestigious award.

“This is a monumental milestone in my life,” he said. “It is recognition that my scientific peers think my work is worth taxpayers' money. It is an honor I will value forever.”

Prahathees Eswara

Eswara’s research, which has been published in meritorious journals like mBio, PLoS Genetics, and more recently in eLife, aims to shed light on the largely-mysterious process of bacterial cell division especially in non-traditional model organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus. Eswara and his team have discovered specific proteins which, upon their depletion, rapidly halt cell reproduction.

“We are identifying new protein targets, as well as the drugs to target them,” Eswara said. “The idea is to develop compounds to act as antibiotics or help other commercial antibiotics work better when combined.”

This research is increasingly relevant in a world where antibiotic-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) is becoming more prevalent. The ominous rise in antibiotic resistance will make surgical procedures, for example, the routine caesarean section and advanced open heart surgeries more risky as they provide a window of opportunity for bacteria to enter and establish themselves. The same is true for drugs that weaken the immune system such as the chemotherapy drugs used for treating cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, by the year 2050, illnesses caused by antibiotic-resistant organisms will kill 10 million people every year, and push millions more into extreme poverty.

This grant, also called as Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award for Early Stage Investigators or shortly MIRA-ESI, provides five years of funding, nearly $1.9 million, in support of Dr. Eswara’s research. It is intended for investigators who are relatively early in their careers and show substantial promise. This award is different from more common grants because, rather than providing funding for a specific project, it gives the investigator the creative flexibility to study a variety of topics with minimal administrative burden.

“This is aimed to fund people rather than projects – it gives me the freedom to follow the projects in whichever direction they may take me,” Eswara said.

With this funding, Eswara intends to continue and expand his current line of research and start new interdisciplinary collaborations to help find solutions to the existing and emerging problems in the field.

“My interest is to identify new factors and mechanisms involved in bacterial cell division, because what we know is not comprehensive at all, by any measure,” he said. “A lot has been overlooked especially in non-model organisms because of lack of technology or genetic tools. I’m glad the NIH continues to support this type of research. Basic biology is important.”

This grant will enable Eswara to make new discoveries to advance the field of bacterial cell division and develop new antibacterial compounds.

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