UC Merced professor studies how disease spreads, resistance to drugs

July 8, 2014 

Professor Clarissa J. Nobile, who studies microbial communities, has discovered mechanisms that allow a potentially fatal biofilm to spread and resist drugs.

Her research was published last month in mBio, an open-access online journal by the American Society for Microbiology. Nobile said the findings could help in developing treatments for fungal biofilm infections, specifically those formed by Candida albicans.

“There are no known biofilm-specific drugs on the market today for any microorganism,” Nobile said.

The fungus is naturally found in the human gut and can cause yeast infections. Infections can also be caused by implanted medical devices, which provide surfaces on which biofilms can form. The infections can be life-threatening.

Nobile pinpointed four core proteins — all members of a histone deacetylase complex — that control how the biofilm forms and learned what happens when they’re changed.

Mutations in the genes encoding each of these four complex members cause the biofilm to be more resistant to agitation and less likely to spread to other parts of a body — and more resistant to drugs.

Drugs that inhibit histone deacetylase are most often used to as mood stabilizers in psychiatry and neurology, and are also being tested to combat cancer, Nobile said. It’s not known if they could be used against biofilms and whether there would be side effects.

Nobile’s interest in biofilms began just as she entered graduate school at Columbia University. Her mother became extremely sick with a biofilm infection. Nobile was surprised to learn that little was known about it and there weren’t any reliable treatments.

She received her doctorate in biology from Columbia in 2007 and was a postdoctoral researcher at University of California at San Francisco. She was appointed to a tenure track position at UC Merced in January 2014.

The opportunity to forge innovative collaborations with UC Merced’s faculty was among the reasons she took the position. Nobile works with professor Miriam Barlow, who studies antibiotic resistance, and professor David Ojcius, who studies infectious diseases, including valley fever.

Nobile is looking at the microbiome — all the microorganisms, good and bad, that live within the human body. Increasingly, research is showing what an important role the microbiome plays in health and disease.

Microbes are able to communicate with each other, and Nobile believes these interactions will shed more light on infections and diseases. “In reality, these microorganisms exist in complex systems,” she said.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced. edu.

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