Academics & Research News

Assistant professor researching ways to destroy antibiotic-resistant cells

Mehmet Orman is an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at UH | Courtesy of UH

Mehmet Orman is an assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at UH who is researching ways to destroy the antibiotic-resistant persister cells. | Courtesy of UH

Research on persister cells relating to bacteria is being conducted at UH to find ways to destroy the antibiotic-resistant cells.

Mehmet Orman, a chemical and biomolecular engineering assistant professor, is working on this project through a $1.9 million grant provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Persister cells are non-growing cell subpopulations observed in many pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria. Self-digestion causes damage to these cells, putting them into a dormant state and giving them temporary immunity to antibiotics.

“It may be too early to say now, but what we want to do if we identify the characteristics mechanism,” Orman said. “The digestion (in bacteria) is not a very simple mechanism.”

Orman said his research, for now, was focused on persister cells in bacteria as opposed to mammalian cells, like what is found in humans. 

One plan Orman said he has in mind for his research in the future is to expand his field and take a look at cancer cells in these bacteria and compare them to the persister cell research.

“(The research) is important because this is an important health concern,” Orman said. “It’s involved in factions, recurrent infections, bacteria persistence is involved in regular infections and I find it all fascinating.”

Orman first began his research on persister cells at Princeton University.

When bacteria are treated with antibiotics, Orman said, almost all of the cells die and only a small portion survives. This small portion is mainly comprised of persister cells. 

“It’s very interesting because you want to know why this survived the drug treatment,” Orman said. “And we know that the cells are generally done growing cells, they’re not proliferating, but this is a transient state. After you remove the drugs, they start proliferating.” 

Orman said persister cells are not drug-resistant mutants.

These cells are drug-tolerant because they are transiently dormant. They can form cell populations that are drug-sensitive.

The phenotypes, or cell composition, as Orman said, are linked similarly to the cancer cells he wishes to also research. The cancer cells also have a small fraction of the population that is drug-tolerant. 

“Basically, my research group wants to understand why this has not been formed, what happens when they are formed, what kind of mechanisms are active,” Orman said.

Orman said although persister cells are dormant, their physiology remains largely unknown as it is hard to isolate these cells to study.

What Orman said he finds fascinating about the research is the fact that it is a challenge to isolate the persister cells and characterize them when they survive.

“In the end, we don’t want to only understand the mechanism itself, we also want to explore the mechanism therapeutically,” Orman said. “If we identify neural chemicals that innovated as targets, I think it will be very painful.”

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