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Fighting Bacterial Pathogens

Just like the contagious nature of the diseases he studies in his laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Eric Skaar, ’02 PHD, ’02 MPH, finds the enthusiasm of his trainees infectious. “I really enjoy the energy and excitement of working with young, intelligent and ambitious people,” he says.

Currently, Skaar supervises a full-time staff of 22, consisting of MD and postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and research technicians, plus a part-time undergraduate student. Together, they investigate infectious diseases, with an emphasis on the intersection between nutrition and infection. Skaar says he enjoys this area of research because, “I love to solve puzzles.”

That devotion translates into toiling roughly 70 hours a week in a 3,000-square-foot facility on the fifth floor of the largest building on Vanderbilt’s campus in Nashville, Tennessee. “We are interested in how bacteria acquire food when they are in our bodies and how our bodies try to keep that food away from bacteria as a way to protect against infection,” he explains.

Eric Skaar, ’02 PhD, ’02 MPH

Eric Skaar, ’02 PhD, ’02 MPH

The Skaar Laboratory, started in 2005, also explores how bacterial pathogens that cause disease compete with normal healthy bacteria in the body to acquire food, as well as how diet impacts these processes. “Someone’s diet is an indicator of whether he or she is susceptible to bacterial pathogens,” Skaar says.

Last year, his lab published a paper in Nature Medicine demonstrating that excess zinc in the diet can dramatically increase susceptibility to Clostridium difficile infection, which is the major cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. In 2008, Skaar’s team identified proteins produced by human immune cells that bind nutrient manganese and zinc “as a way to inhibit bacterial growth and protect people from infection.”

Skaar, 42, grew up in Naperville, Illinois, where in high school he enrolled in an advanced placement biology course. “I became very interested in microbiology,” he says. “I was amazed by the level of destruction and the rapid speed with which small organisms can cause damage to the human body. As I became more familiar with molecular biology, I became interested in the molecular processes that are responsible for disease.”

Skaar’s fascination with microbiology resulted in an undergraduate degree in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1996. Later that year, he began pursuing advanced dual degrees in public health and microbiology/immunology at the forerunner of Feinberg’s Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences. Skaar chose Northwestern for two reasons: its strong microbiology/immunology department with professors who had research interests that mirrored his own, and the integrated graduate program. “I was given exposure to a lot of disciplines,” he says.

Because Skaar was intrigued by molecular epidemiology and the possibility of training in public heath, he successfully petitioned Feinberg to allow him, as a PhD student, to also enroll in the part-time master’s degree in public health for medical students. In fact, Skaar says he became the first student of what eventually became a formal dual-degree PhD and MPH program. He credits his graduate advisor, Hank Seifert, PhD, for unfailingly supporting his pursuit of the hybrid degree.

“The integrated graduate program prepared me for success by providing a truly diverse training background and encouraging me to think more broadly than my own field,” Skaar says. “In my research, this has been a real advantage for me.”

Lipid analysis of a mouse kidney post infection with S. Aureus bacteria gives Skaar’s lab molecular information about infection. This data as collected using MALDI Imaging Mass Spectrometry.

Lipid analysis of a mouse kidney post infection with S. Aureus bacteria gives Skaar’s lab molecular information about infection. This data as collected using MALDI Imaging Mass Spectrometry.

The dual training at Feinberg also shaped Skaar’s interests and the kinds of questions he asks as an independent investigator. Following graduation in 2002, Skaar did three years of postdoctoral training in microbiology and chemistry at the University of Chicago, where he studied Staph infections.

Skaar accepted his first faculty position at Vanderbilt University in 2005, as an assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology. He has since advanced to become the Ernest W. Goodpasture Professor of Pathology.

The Skaar Laboratory continues to discover how bacteria acquire nutrients during infection. “We feel that if you could stop bacteria from eating, you would have good targets that could be drugged as a way to develop new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Skaar proposes. Mouse models in his lab have already demonstrated small molecules or drug candidates that can target some of these processes and protect the animal from infection.

“We are at the point now where we are discussing potential partnerships with larger pharmaceutical companies, so we can begin to advance some of these molecules into clinical trials,” Skaar says. “It is not impossible that we could have molecules in clinical trials within one or two years.” These could come in the form of an oral or topical antibiotic for anyone diagnosed with a Gram-positive bacterial infection. “And because the molecules we have developed target proteins that are only in bacteria, the hope is that the molecules will be safe,” Skaar says.

Skaar’s limited time outside his laboratory is spent with his wife of 15 years, Heather, and his two daughters, ages 13 and 10. He also likes to exercise and play golf.