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Salk microflora researcher Janelle Ayres named Searle Scholar

Janelle Ayres, assistant professor in the Nomis Foundation Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis

Janelle Ayres, assistant professor in the Nomis Foundation Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, has received the prestigious Searle Scholar award, which each year is given to only 15 researchers in the chemical and biological sciences. The scholarship provides each recipient with $300,000 to support scientific research over the next three years. This year, 172 applications were considered from recently appointed assistant professors, nominated by 120 universities and research institutions.

Ayres’ work focuses on the trillions of bacteria that live in intestines and are responsible for health and wellness. Many diseases occur when that microbial system is thrown out of whack and “bad” bacteria take over. Using antibiotics to fight infections has limitations: besides not working for all diseases, antibiotics also kill good bacteria and contribute to multi-drug-resistant harmful bacteria (“super bugs”). Ayres focuses on an entirely new approach to therapeutics by investigating how helpful microflora could be leveraged to combat the effects of harmful bacteria in place of or in addition to antibiotic treatment. Rather than attempting to eliminate the bad bacteria directly, she is using beneficial bacteria to target and control the damage generated during infections (for example, diarrhea and rapid weight loss), thereby giving an organism’s immune system time to clear out the infection. Studying how to engineer microbes that can colonize the intestine while providing beneficial effects could lead to new treatments for infectious and inflammatory diseases and pathologies associated with cancer and aging.