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Julius Edson

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Fighting Deadly Bacteria

The news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2013 was chilling: Deadly infections by bacteria that are immune to even the strongest antibiotics are rising, and there is only a “limited window of opportunity” to stop them.

CDC director Thomas R. Frieden called these “nightmare bacteria” that might transfer their drug resistance to other bacteria.

The case in point was carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, benign in the human gut, but potentially deadly if it enters the bloodstream, lungs or urinary tract. That is far from the only threat. Largely due to decades of overuse of antibiotics in humans and commercially raised animals, drug-resistant bacteria are becoming disturbingly common.

Julius Edson (City College, B.E. in chemical engineering, 2012), now a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine, won a $126,000, three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2013 by suggesting a new way of attacking these lethal bacteria – with a substance found in the shells of shrimp. The NSF fellowship is the most prestigious award for graduate study in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Most antibiotics are designed to disrupt the enzymatic processes that bacteria need to grow, but bacteria have evolved to resist them. Edson suggests using chitosan, a substance found in the shells of crabs, shrimp and other marine animals.

On the nanoscale, chitosan can damage the bacterial cell membrane through an electrostatic interaction. Most cell membranes carry a negative charge, while chitosan has a positive charge; in an electrostatic interaction, negative attracts positive, as in a magnet.

“The chitosan sticks to and ruptures the cell membrane of microbes then serves as an antenna to direct the body’s own immune system to attack,” he says.

There is one big problem, however, which Edson hopes his research will overcome: Chitosan dissolves only in an acid environment of pH 5.0 or lower, which is more acidic than the human body (at pH 6 to 8) can tolerate. So Edson intends to chemically modify chitosan so it can readily function in the body without losing its innate properties.

Edson became interested in this field while studying colloidal systems with City College associate professor Ilona Kretzschmar.

“I went to City College as premed, but the more I worked on nanotechnology with Doctor Kretzschmar and the more I thought of my own projects, the more I realized that a degree in chemical engineering was a perfect fit for me, and I’ll still be able to help in the medical field.”

Born in Nigeria, he says that as a youngster he contracted “various illnesses. They didn’t think I’d survive through adolescence, but I am here and healthy.”

With survival came a sense of responsibility to help others.

He immigrated to the United States at 7, went to school in Maryland and moved to New York to enter City College at 18. As an undergraduate, he secured a scholarship from the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, an NSF-funded program to encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue a baccalaureate degree in the STEM fields.

Thanks to the Stokes program, he conducted water-treatment studies in small communities in Cartagena, Colombia. Additionally, with help from Kretzschmar, he traveled to Stockholm to conduct research on biomaterials for medical applications, as well as to Graz, Austria, to work with lead-free piezoelectric materials. NSF funded these projects.

After he earns his doctorate, perhaps in 2017, Edson intends to continue his research into fighting drug-resistant microbes, either by going the entrepreneurial route in a start-up company or by teaching.