Matthew Foley has a singular focus: harnessing the body’s own power to fight off the devastating bacterium Clostridioides difficile.
Now he’s getting invaluable help to reach his goal.
Foley, a postdoctoral fellow at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health T32 Training Grant to continue his promising research on C. diff, which causes half a million illnesses and 50,000 deaths each year in the United States alone.
During the program, Foley will receive mentorship from scientists at the Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease (CGIBD), a research collaborative between NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Each year, just one to two researchers are chosen for the Gastroenterology Basic Science Research Training Program at UNC that’s funded by the NIH grant.
“I was very excited to receive such an honorable award, but the award goes beyond feeling acknowledged,” said Foley. “Funding as a postdoc is not guaranteed. This training grant gives me assurance that I can continue my work at NC State, mature my research, and receive mentorship from talented scientists here and at UNC.”
During the yearlong program, Foley will regularly meet with researchers at both schools, who will advise him on his ongoing work and help keep his professional development on track. He will learn about the array of research conducted by CGIBD members that could possibly inform Foley’s own work on how gut microbiota creates molecules that impact human health.
The CGIBD, established in 1983, is the only gastrointestinal center in the United States officially associated with a veterinary school. Gastrointestinal diseases in humans, such as inflammatory bowel disease, are also seen in dogs, cats, horses and other animals.
“Members of the CGIBD have world-class expertise in understanding gut physiology and human disease,” said Foley. “Learning from them will be integral to my scientific progress.”
Foley, who holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of Michigan, has been conducting research at NC State for a little over a year, exploring how a body’s bile acids are modified by gut bacteria.
The rich diversity of the body’s bile acids is integral to our health, said Foley, strongly affecting the body’s immune system and energy metabolism — even our circadian rhythms that tell us when to sleep and when to wake up.
Foley ultimately wants to design innovative, next-generation probiotics that produce bile acids to specifically kill C. diff. Conditions such as obesity or inflammatory bowel disease could potentially be treated by altering the gut’s bile acids to change the body’s energy storage or curb inflammation, said Foley. Current treatment for C. diff infections range from various medications to stool transplant and surgery.
Part of our goal as scientists is to understand and inform the treatment of disease,” he said. “This training opportunity will help me become the best scientist I can be so my research can make the greatest impact.”
At the CVM, Foley works in the lab of Casey Theriot, assistant professor of infectious disease. Theriot’s research is dedicated to how C. diff impacts both the gut’s natural collection of microorganisms, its microbiota, and the small molecules created by those microorganisms, the gut metabolome.
In 2016, Theriot received a five-year, $1.5 million NIH grant to develop new therapies inhibiting C. diff growth and increase understanding of the mechanisms behind the gut’s resistance against pathogens.
C. diff, a spore-forming bacterium, commonly causes diarrhea and colitis, an inflammation of the colon. C. diff can affect people of all ages, but more than 80% of C. diff-attributed deaths occur in people 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those at higher risk for infection include the recently hospitalized, people taking antibiotics and those who have had previous C. diff infections. Recent studies have shown a rise in global rates of C. diff-related disease over the past 20 years.
Last year, Theriot’s research team published a paper outlining its development a drug-testing pipeline to identify compounds that fight C. diff infections. They noted that 2-aminoimidazole (2-AI), a small molecule developed by former NC State professors, showed particular promise in controlling the bacterium.