The bacteria is in the details
By Sol Inés Peca
After years of researching microbes and their resistance to drugs, Albert Berghuis, Professor in McGill’s Departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology & Immunology, now finds himself spending a lot of time outside the lab assessing the methodologies of fellow researchers, as a newly appointed member of the Centre for Scientific Review of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States.
Berghuis understands well the process of an investigator, having been on the path of scientific discovery since his years as an undergraduate chemistry student in his native Netherlands, where he honed his passion for research. He was soon motivated to continue his studies at the graduate level. His MSc supervisor, Prof. Wim Hol, now at the University of Washington, was one of the early proponents of “structure-based” drug design, meaning the idea that the detailed knowledge of the three-dimensional shape of a drug target, such as bacteria, can inform the design of drugs.
“This concept made perfect sense to me and inspired me to pursue further studies in this direction,” says Berghuis. He moved on to earn his PhD in Biochemistry at the University of British Columbia and has been exploring in atomic detail the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance ever since.
“For me research is a form of discovery, a rush. When you and your team are the very first to have this discovered knowledge, it beats Columbus’ discovery of America hands-down, as the natives were already there anyways!” says Berghuis.
Berghuis’ familiarity with antibacterial drug development and antibiotic resistance caught the eye of the NIH, who approached him to participate as an ad-hoc member five years ago. At McGill, Berghuis has a lab and a team of researchers who since 2001 work daily to understand and restrain bacteria.
“We examine in detail how drugs are rendered harmless by superbugs,” explains Berghuis. “This can inform us on the development of next generation antibiotics that are less susceptible to bacterial resistance mechanisms.”
Over the years, Berghuis and his team at McGill have promoted the use of structural biological approaches in biomedical research and were able to determine strategies to combat an enzyme that provides resistance to numerous aminoglycoside antibiotics. These strategies are now being followed up by various groups worldwide.
It is this dedication and success that led him to his most recent role as permanent member of NIH for the next four years. Berghuis reviews grants submitted to the study section on ‘Drug Discovery and Mechanisms of Antibacterial Resistance’. Similar to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Centre for Scientific Review coordinates the peer review of all grants submitted to the NIH.
Berghuis is part of a large group that meets three times a year to review the grants. “At each meeting, about 100 grants will be discussed, which means substantial preparation on the part of the thirty members,” explains Berghuis. To cover the range of expertise required, the group is varied. “Members include academics in the basic biomedical sciences such as myself, MDs with expertise in infectious diseases and senior scientists from the pharmaceutical industry,” he adds. Berghuis is currently the only non-U.S. citizen in this study section.
“I review many grants that are of outstanding scientific quality and that without a doubt merit funding,” says Berghuis. However, the role does come with its challenges. Fairly allocating available funding among the outstanding candidates is not easy. “The situation in Canada is no different,” explains Berghuis, who just completed a three-year term as Chair of the CIHR’s ‘Biochemistry & Molecular Biology-A’ committee panel, where he filled a similar role.
“The experience was heart-wrenching,” he says. “The quality of the grants submitted to the CIHR was phenomenal, but unfortunately funding levels are unsubstantial to accommodate all of them.”
Despite this, Berghuis has an optimistic outlook. He sees the amount of work being done by researchers to find ways to curtail quickly adapting bacteria. “Antibiotic resistance is a serious health concern that will not go away any time soon, if ever,” he says. “As with many problems, the solution is a multi-pronged approach,” explains Berghuis. “Developing new drugs and controlling prescriptions are part of it, and so is human ingenuity.”