Chemistry Professor and Student Produce Anti-Microbial Drugs for Testing

Asst. Prof. Manos Gkikas and his former student, Frances Skinner
Chemistry Asst. Prof. Manos Gkikas and his former student, Frances Skinner ’19, had their research on anti-microbial drugs published in Nature Communications.

By Brooke Coupal

New drugs are needed to attack bacteria that can cause infections in critically ill patients.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can lead to gut-driven sepsis and infections in the blood, lungs and other parts of the body, has developed resistance to several antibiotics.

In 2017, the multidrug-resistant bacteria caused about 32,600 infections among hospitalized patients in the United States and about 2,700 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Antibiotic Resistant Threats Report.

Chemistry Asst. Prof. Manos Gkikas collaborated with Laurence Rahme, a Harvard Medical School professor and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researcher, to find new anti-microbial drugs to fight Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

“Bacterial infections keep evolving, so we have to keep evolving drugs too,” Gkikas says.

Gkikas and his former student, Frances Skinner ’19, created around 10 different anti-microbial drugs in Gkikas’ lab that they then sent to MGH for testing. Two of those drugs were featured in a research paper published in Nature Communications, which was co-authored by Gkikas and Skinner.

“Most of the anti-microbials that we synthesized had some level of efficacy against Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” says Skinner, who began working on this research during her sophomore year at UMass Lowell.

“One anti-microbial that I made mainly on my own was most effective against the bacteria,” she adds.

Gaining Lab Experience as an Undergraduate

With guidance and training from Gkikas, Skinner learned how to design and synthesize anti-microbial drugs, get rid of impurities within the drugs and characterize their chemical properties.

“She did the reactions and the characterization, and we discussed the results and next steps,” Gkikas says. “She was practically independent.”

Skinner sought out Gkikas as a mentor early in her undergraduate career, so that she could gain hands-on training in a lab.

“I learned a lot of fundamentals in Gkikas’ lab, which gave me a lot more confidence working in a laboratory environment,” she says.

The Danville, New Hampshire, native went on to work at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge after graduating from UMass Lowell. She is now enrolled at the University of New Hampshire as a Ph.D. student in chemistry.

“It’s important to get students involved in research as early as possible,” says Gkikas, who adds that many of the undergraduate students who have worked in his lab have published papers in peer-reviewed journals and have gone off to have successful careers in STEM.

Skinner says she is proud to see her undergraduate work published in Nature Communications and hopes it will help make a difference for patients suffering from Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections.

“The drugs could possibly help some people someday,” she says. “That’s my main concern.”