Scientist Battling Invincible Microbes Takes Fight to the Silver Screen

September 19, 2017 • by Annie Zhang

Learn about UT Austin's Bryan Davies and his research into how to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria and develop new antimicrobials to fight infection.

Two men embrace

Will and his partner Angel Gonzalez after the succesful transplantation. Photo courtesy of Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Bryan Davies is an assistant professor in molecular biosciences and biotechnologist at the University of Texas at Austin, leading research into how to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria and develop new antimicrobials to fight infection.

Recently, he was involved as a producer for STUMPED, a documentary about filmmaker and former Boston University professor Will Lautzenheiser, whose arms and legs had to be amputated after he contracted a life-threatening bacterial infection. In Austin, the film will be screened this Sunday, September 24 at 2 PM at a special event in partnership with the Dell Medical School and the Austin Film Society.

We sat down with Davies to talk about his research, his involvement with the film and the intersection of the two.

Antibiotic resistance is clearly a major issue, with more types of infection being slow to respond to antibiotics and some infections having no approved antibiotics for treatment anymore. How does this relate to the research you do in your lab?

My lab is interested in coming up with new ways to screen and identify chemical compounds and proteins that could potentially treat antibiotic-resistant infections, and then figuring out how to deliver them to the right location. We were recently awarded one of the Dell Medical School's Texas Health Catalyst Awards for a procedure that would be able to rapidly identify new antibiotic leads.

What happens after you've identified these leads?

After completing experiments to show those leads are a viable option, we work with a number of industrial partners to move them into clinical studies. We're interested in trying to bridge this gap between basic research and moving it out into the clinic. The basic science is good. Some scientists like to point out that science cured cancer in mice decades ago, but 90 percent of studies done in mice fail to translate to humans. We're really trying to understand where the failure points are and what we can do to get past it. It's about understanding not just the fundamentals of what makes a bacteria resistant and how do we kill it, but how can we kill it in the context of a human who has all these other biological functions going on—and may also be immunocompromised on top of that—to actually treat the infection.

Why is it so important to identify and make new antibiotics and antimicrobials?

We haven't developed any new classes of antibiotics in decades. The rate at which antibiotic resistance is increasing, it's projected to kill more people than cancer in about 30 years. We just don't have any treatments for it. That's just for infections. Then look at cancer treatments — so many of them leave patients immunocompromised. Anytime someone is immunocompromised, they're vulnerable to infection. HIV patients are dying of pneumonia because their immune systems are suppressed. In relation to this film, when you have a limb transplanted, you have to go on immunosuppressants for the rest of your life, and one of the big problems with that is bacterial infection.

Wow, that's a pretty frightening situation. Speaking of the film, tell us more about that.

The film follows Will Lautzenheiser, who contracted a terrible bacterial infection to which he lost his limbs. My wife, Robin Berghaus, did a short film on Will and his process of getting through the amputations and recovery, and when Will and his doctors lined up this idea of doing the transplant, the feature film took off. It's broader than antibiotic resistance — the focus is on experimental medicine, which you can take across the board for any drug. Will was the third patient to undergo a double-arm transplant at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. As you push into these new areas, you need folks who are willing enough to say, "Sure, put me on there even if I may develop a horrible infection and die." We all want treatments for diseases, and it takes some people who are willing to try it out.

How has being involved as a producer of STUMPED affected your research?

Watching someone go through this makes me want to ensure that my research has the real potential to go out and do something productive. Basic science does have tremendous value for the country. At some point, it does need to jump from the lab and translate to the real world. I view myself as someone who can build upon all that great basic science that was done before me and take it and do something with it. The greatest win for me would be to see someone walk out of the hospital thanks to something that I discovered and brought from the lab.

Has it inspired any new research directions?

By following the transplantation story, a lot of the work we're doing now is actually bringing two concepts together. Antibiotics are typically small molecules that kill bacteria and antibodies are proteins that your immune system produces to recognize bacteria and recruit other factors to fight them off. What we figured out how to do, with some of our collaborators, is we can bring them together to make antimicrobial antibodies, which are larger proteins that can actually bind to bacteria, directly kill it, and also recruit the immune system to help clear that infection more rapidly. It is in an exceptionally early stage, but by going through the film experience and understanding both the importance of antibiotic resistance, as well as how doctors think about and regulate the immune system, it got me thinking about how to bring these ideas together.

What do you hope the public gets out of this documentary?

A project like this lets the public understand at a deeper level how important this research is for their lives and how they may want to contribute to it. I think the more we can actually explain the benefits of the type of medical research that's going on, the more you're going to get the public engaged, and that would be a very positive direction.

STUMPED will premiere in Austin on Sunday, September 24, 2017 at 2PM at the AFS Cinema, co-presented by the Austin Film Society. The event is part of a national series called Science on Screen designed to enhance film and scientific literacy. Following the film, there will be a discussion about the risks, rewards and ethics of experimental medicine. The Q&A will feature Dr. Richard Freeman, the Vice Dean of Clinical Affairs at Dell Medical School and a veteran transplant surgeon, STUMPED director Robin Berghaus, and Linda Meeker, donor wife of Dennis Meeker.