Erik van Tilburg Bernardes is a recent MSc graduate from the University of Calgary. His work focuses on the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is considered one of the primary causes of chronic lung infections in people with CF. P. aeruginosa tends to be antibiotic resistant, in part because the bacteria forms biofilms. Biofilms are communities of bacteria that stick together and attach to a surface, forming a slime layer that makes them difficult to kill.
Erik’s work looks at finding ways to block P. aeruginosa bacteria from forming biofilms, in order to increase the effectiveness of antibiotics against chronic lung infections in people with CF, and promote long-term survival.
Cystic Fibrosis Canada had the chance to sit down with Erik recently and ask him about his work. Here is what he said:
How did you become interested in cystic fibrosis-related research?
It was a classic case of the right doors opening at the right time. I had been interested in working with bacteria since my first Microbiology course, and after contacting a few professors, I was invited to participate in a Vaccine Laboratory project, supervised by Dr. Luiz Felipe Coelho. In this project, I tested the ability of a prototype anti-Pseudomonas vaccine, produced at my hometown University, Unifal, to protect mice from P. aeruginosa infections. After this initial project, I became passionate about research, particularly in microbiology and how bacteria use diverse mechanisms to infect and cause diseases in their hosts. This interest led me to contact my current supervisor, Dr. Shawn Lewenza, who offered me a project in the area of identifying novel antimicrobials for treating chronic P. aeruginosa infections, using a very interesting antivirulence approach, in which these new antimicrobials do not directly kill the bacteria, but reduce its ability to protect themselves, making them easier to treat with other therapeutic approaches.
What is your most exciting discovery thus far?
In my project, we have identified small molecules that reduce P. aeruginosa’s ability to form biofilms. When treating P. aeruginosa with these antibiofilm compounds, these ‘unarmed’ bacteria had a reduced ability to form biofilms and caused a weaker infection in a worm infection model. Additionally, these treatments promoted antimicrobial killing, making biofilms more sensitive to different antibiotics, some of which are commonly used in the clinic to treat chronic P. aeruginosa infections in CF patients.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The search for new treatments is not an easy path. The time spent between the initial discovery of a molecule and its possible use in the clinic commonly takes many years. For me, the most challenging part of this project is the extensive amount of work still needed to better characterize the identified molecules before they can even be considered for treating chronic P. aeruginosa infections in CF patients.
How do you see this work making life better for people with CF
P. aeruginosa is a nasty bacterium that, once infecting CF patients, is almost impossible to eradicate. The chronic presence of P. aeruginosa within CF lungs promotes permanent damage and reduced lung function, reducing patients’ quality of life. My work focuses on identifying an alternative antivirulence approach to treating these infections, and I believe that this can lead to the discovery of new treatments for P. aeruginosa infections, ultimately improving the quality of life for CF patients.
Can you tell us about your career hopes for the future?
I really love research and I am currently aiming to merge my pharmaceutical experience with my current work in microbiology. I have been offered a Research Associate position in the Physiology and Pharmacology Department at the University of Calgary, and will be studying how the microorganisms living inside of us – known as microbiota – affect different functions in our body, including protecting us from diseases. I aim to validate my Bachelor in Pharmacy in the near future, to be able to work as a pharmacist in Canada, and possibly obtain an additional degree merging pharmacy and microbiology.
Erik recently defended his Masters of Science degree at the University of Calgary, where his studies focused on identifying alternative treatments for chronic P. aeruginosa infections, a major threat for CF patients. He holds a Bachelor in Pharmacy from the University of Alfenas (Unifal) in Brazil and was also awarded a Science Without Borders scholarship to come to the University of Calgary, where he attended the Faculty of Medicine for one year as a full-time visiting student, participating in research projects in Dr. Shawn Lewenza’s lab. Erik then returned to Dr. Lewenza’s lab as a Masters of Science student, where he focused on identifying small molecules that prevent biofilm formation in P. aeruginosa, as a new antivirulence approach for treating chronic bacterial infections.