Paul Bollyky’s Catalyst Award Aims Squarely at Pseudomonas Infections

 Paul Bollyky, MD, DPhil (assistant professor, Infectious Diseases)

Recently, Paul Bollyky, MD, DPhil (assistant professor, Infectious Diseases), learned that he was to receive a Catalyst Award from the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust. The one-year grant of almost one-half million dollars aims to fund preliminary steps (such as planning, project and team development, purchase of tools, hiring of personnel) that will, according to the Trust, enable awardees to undertake a high risk/high reward project “that addresses critical scientific and therapeutic roadblocks.”

Bollyky’s project aims to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance by the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a major cause of pneumonia, infected wounds, and hospital-acquired infections. Antibiotic-resistant infections are not a new phenomenon, but they are a frustration to infectious diseases physicians whose patients have to fight them with fewer options all the time. “These Pseudomonas infections have evolved resistance to most, and in some cases, all of the antibiotics that we have to use against them,” explains Bollyky.

“As an infectious diseases doctor on the wards, I often see patients with these infections. And I have had patients where we’ve amputated limbs because we don’t have any antibiotics that work against their infection. If antibiotic choices are like bullets in a gun, I often find that I’m out of bullets to use against Pseudomonas infections. If we’re lucky we may come up with another solution for treating these bugs.”

Bollyky’s target is a bacteriophage, or a virus, that infects bacteria like Pseudomonas.  While most bacteriophages parasitize bacteria, Bollyky and his collaborators discovered that certain bacteriophages actually partner with their bacterial hosts. In a recent article in Cell Host & Microbe (2015;18:549-59), they showed that these bacteriophages play a pivotal role in the formation of biofilm, which is an adherent coating that allows bacteria to colonize surfaces like wounds and catheters. Both bacteriophage and bacteria thereby work together to cause infections. “What that means,” Bollyky explains, “is that we have a target that we can go after to treat antibiotic-resistant Pseudomonas infections.”

He continues: “I think the reason why the Falk Trust gave us this funding is because we have this novel target that puts another bullet in the gun, so to speak. In particular, the Catalyst Award is funding a pair of strategies to develop therapies that target this family of bacteriophages, and we’re optimistic that one and maybe both strategies will give us some novel therapies to treat multi-drug resistant Pseudomonas.”

In order to jump-start this project, Bollyky plans to use the Catalyst Award monies to hire a dedicated microbiologist, add needed equipment in his lab, and invest in reagents and materials to develop his technology. “What I’m most excited about,” he says, “is getting a slug of resources and, to be honest, a vote of confidence from a handful of reviewers. This gives us both the momentum and the resources to take this to the next level. It propels the whole lab in a new and pretty exciting direction.”

Ideally, a successful, milestone-driven Catalyst Award will lead to another grant, a two-year Transformational Award from the Falk Trust, which offers $1 million of support to approximately half of Catalyst awardees following a second round of competitive applications.

Upinder Singh, MD (chief, Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine) cites two features that make Dr. Bollyky such a successful scientist: “One is his ability to think outside the box, and the second is the overall breadth of his research program (ranging from autoimmunity, inflammation, to antibiotic resistance [this grant] to biofilm formation). This breadth of science has allowed him to rapidly integrate and contribute greatly to the Stanford academic/intellectual environment. He has already collaborated (and in some cases published) with a number of faculty (including in Bone Marrow Transplant, Neurology, Immunology, Pediatrics).

Asked how he feels about having received this first award from the Falk Trust, Bollyky says: “To use an outer-space metaphor, the Catalyst Award is the first stage that allows this project -- and optimistically my lab -- to get off the ground. And then if we make the second stage of the Falk funding, the Transformational Award, then that’s the booster that will really put us into orbit.”

We hope to report on the orbiting Bollyky lab in about a year.