Tuesday, 15 October 2013

I'm alive!

This week my sister finally prodded shamed me into action on the blog front. The month of September was a write off with work. And unfortunately, when the job that pays the bills collides with the blog that’s all for fun, work wins out.

My day job is running a medical research lab. I have about eight people (combination of grad students, post docs and technicians) that I employ. To keep them all paid and the lab running and filled with supplies, I have to get grant money from the federal government. Every five years these grants need to be renewed, and I’m at that point right now. I had one grant due on September 15, and a second one due October 1, so it was all work and no play for the last few months. Once October 1 passed I was so sick of writing that the blog just seemed like an overwhelming task. So it sat here neglected...

My lab studies bacteriophages (or phages), which are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Every one of us has about ten times more bacterial cells than we have human cells in and on our body (bacteria are way smaller than mammalian cells). And  we have ten times as many phages as we have bacteria. So really, by numbers, we're 90% phage, 9% bacteria, and 1% human; a veritable smorgasboard of microbes, most of which are harmless, and some even helpful.

Phages can't infect us, only the bacteria that live in and on us. But they can do really nasty things to these bacteria when they exist inside them; the toxins that cause cholera, diphtheria, botulism, and E. coli O157:H7 (Walkerton outbreak) are all carried by phages. Phages carry and transmit antibiotic resistance genes and they sometimes encode genes that make the bacteria more infective and better able to hide from, or resist, the human immune system. In this modern age of antibiotic resistant bacteria (like MRSA and C. difficile), understanding how phages control the traits that make bacteria difficult to treat is critical.

On the flip side, because phages infect and kill bacteria, they could possibly be harnessed to do it in a controlled manner and  provide an alternative to antibiotics. My lab is trying to (1) understand all the ways in which phages make bacteria more difficult to treat, and (2) learn how to engineer them to attack and kill bacteria. 

So that's what's been taking up all my brainpower for the past couple of months. Thinking up five years of experiments for a dozen people, and writing grants that will convince a committee to give me millions of dollars is no easy task. Thankfully it's all over now until at least January, when I get the reviews back and find out if I made the cut and got funded. Success rates are about 15-18% right now, so it's a tough slog. 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I don't have to rewrite - it really cuts into my home reno time!

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