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Peg Riley was once enrolled in the pre-med program at UMass Amherst, but she decided working with sick people wasn’t for her.
Actually, she’d prefer people didn’t get sick at all. But while most of us agree, Riley is in the unique position as a microbiologist to do something about it.
Currently a professor of biology at UMass and the director of the Natural History Collection on campus (more on that later), Riley has spent most of her career studying the ecology and evolution of life itself, in particular at the microbial level.
She joined the UMass faculty in 2004 after a 15-year stint teaching and conducting research at Yale, and soon after founding Origins Antimicrobials LLC with fellow professor and researcher, Rob Dorit. The venture was started with the mission of identifying new drugs from natural sources and, more specifically, using existing knowledge about bacterial ecology to develop more effective antimicrobial agents that have longer lives.
She said it’s a growing phenomenon for academic professionals to start their own private companies for research purposes, in response to the slower pace and multiple distractions of higher education.
“We get frustrated when our ideas get shelved,” said Riley, noting that while there are some important conflict of interest issues to address at the start, Origins is allowing her and Dorit to move forward more quickly with some very real, very timely medically based projects.
The company’s work began looking at the most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office – urinary tract infections – and ecologically based drugs and drug cocktails that could combat the problem.
Treating UTIs is just the first piece of a large, complicated puzzle, she continued. That initial research has already led to new foci on ear infections and the various infections associated with cystic fibrosis. And on a broader scale, Riley explained that while so-called narrow-spectrum drugs are of little interest to pharmaceutical companies, slowly more attention is being paid to such treatments as a greater number of people develop resistance to broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as penicillin and amoxicillin.
What’s more, many pharmaceutical companies have dissolved large portions of their antibiotic programs, again because of the preponderance of those broad-spectrum drugs.
“Because they had penicillin and those other antibiotics, they shifted their focus to more lucrative pursuits, such as drugs that treat chronic illnesses. So there aren’t any new drugs entering the market, and the problem grows.”
A Bug’s Life…
That problem is a public health bugaboo, according to Riley.
“The problem now is that we have misused and abused antibiotics to the point that they don’t work, and increasingly, people are getting sicker,” she said. “Slowly, we’re getting people’s attention on this, but it’s extraordinary how slowly that attention is actually coming. Even the NIH (National Institutes of Health) is dragging.”
Still, Riley said in the natural world, there are potentially millions of biologically based drugs that could treat any number of ailments yet to be discovered.
“I go out into nature and find toxins that are potential candidates, then choose a few to study,” she explained. “It’s a promising field, especially from a human health standpoint because theoretically we can kill things we couldn’t kill before. And, new potential treatments can be identified much more quickly than a new drug can be invented synthetically – we have billions of years of evolution on our side.”
Riley knows this in part because she worked with the federal government following 9/11 and the subsequent Anthrax scares to help identify new ways to detect biological agents.
“One of the only good outcomes of that period in our history is that the government spent billions on the detection of pathogens,” she explained. “A lot of that money led to new discoveries that weren’t related to homeland security or terrorism. I predict that in the next 10 years, we will have accurate microbial detection systems.”
What that means is various ailments and the specific bacteria that cause them could be identified with a visit to the doctor’s office, and treated via a targeted, and therefore more effective, approach.
“Then, there will be no argument against narrow-spectrum drugs,” said Riley.
Beyond that, drugs developed to fight specific bacteria could have a significant impact on other public health issues. UTIs, for instance, are often caused by e-coli, and just as drugs can be developed to fight urinary infections, other, similar agents could be created to prevent more serious problems caused by e-coli in food, such as hamburger meat, lettuce, or spinach, a problem of particular concern of late.
“In the future, this could absolutely be developed into a spray for food,” said Riley, “and in turn, that could even be a marketing pitch for various vendors – these are naturally occurring things that are already in the body, so I think that could be a major development for food safety and our overall health.”
Currently, Riley and Dorit are seeking two patents concerning their work, involving methods for identifying and developing organic, narrow-spectrum drugs. Waiting for approval on those patents has been long and arduous; they were originally submitted two and a half years ago, and still the partners have no word. However, Origins has continued to conduct research and trials in the realm of treating complications of cystic fibrosis and ear infections, and has given a preliminary look to staph infections that are becoming more prevalent in hospitals. The work continues, Riley said, with the blessing of the UMass campus and support from its partnering biomedical outfit, the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield.
… And The Life Of Riley
But it’s here that Riley’s career path meets a fork in the road. In addition to her extensive work studying antimicrobial agents, she’s also the director of the Natural History Collection at UMass, and is in the planning stages of creating an academy of sciences on campus for use by the entire Commonwealth, something that many states have but Massachusetts has never formed, in part due to the already strong scientific presence in many of its colleges.
Riley said such an entity would assist with legislative issues and promotion of the sciences as a viable, important industry.
“An academy of sciences speaks,” she said. “It is a wonder tool for educational reform and legislative communication. My goal once the academy is set up is to spend some time with the Legislature marketing research that is happening now, including on this campus. That will indirectly benefit my own research, though these really are two very different tasks.”
Riley’s directorship of the Natural History Collection is what ties the two endeavors together. As an undergraduate, she had a course in comparative vertebrate anatomy – it wasn’t a course she chose, but rather a requirement for her major.
Still, she immediately found an affinity for the subject, and for her professor, Dr. David Klingener, who also directed the Natural History Collection. Riley described him as a gruff, unsmiling man with a particular love for bats, who nevertheless had a knack for teaching and inspiring his students. That course ultimately led Riley to a master’s degree in functional morphology – the study of how bones and muscles work – and a Ph.D. from Harvard in molecular evolution, and subsequently her current research interests.
But it also led to a long, professional relationship with Professor Klingener, and when Riley made the move from Yale to UMass, his family asked her to take over responsibility for the natural history collections.
“These are extraordinary, valuable collections,” she said, “and it’s my other love. It helps teach why science is important, and with the creation of the Academy, we can more actively recruit people at younger ages to the field. And if I can pass on the importance of scientific research to others to carry on after me, then I’ve left a greater impact than a stack of published reports.”
And perhaps through her work, those scientists of tomorrow will also be living in a healthier world.
By JACLYN C. STEVENSON