Mexican graduate student wrapping up a month of research at UTHCT mycobacteria laboratory

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Nontuberculous mycobacteria are common throughout the world, yet few biomedical research laboratories focus on studying them. Richard Wallace, MD, an infectious disease expert at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler directs a lab that does specialize in these types of mycobacteria, types that don’t cause tuberculosis or leprosy.

That’s why a graduate student in Monterrey, Mexico, traveled all the way to East Texas to test how certain kinds of nontuberculous mycobacteria react to a new antibiotic.

Carmen Molina is in the final week of her month-long study in Dr. Wallace’s research lab, UTHSCT Senior Research Scientist Barbara Brown-Elliott said. Molina is testing the effectiveness of a new antibiotic against some of the lab’s extensive collection of nontuberculous mycobacteria. These microorganisms are found virtually everywhere, including the soil.

Molina selected the UTHSCT lab because Dr. Wallace, Brown-Elliott, and other scientists have compiled reference collections of nontuberculous mycobacteria during their more than 30 years of study. These collections are carefully stored, and access to them is limited.

Nontuberculous mycobacteria usually don’t cause disease in humans. However, sometimes they do make people sick, especially people with impaired immune systems or who have a break in their skin that allows mycobacteria inside their body, Brown-Elliott said. For example, nontuberculous mycobacteria can be inhaled and cause lung infection. They are hard to kill, because they have thick, fat-filled cell walls that protect them from chemical assaults, including those launched by many antibiotics, she said.

“Carmen is working on an antibiotic related to one we studied here in the mycobacteria lab. It’s an investigational antibiotic, meaning it has not yet been approved for human use,” said Brown-Elliott, the lab’s supervisor.

“Carmen’s major professor contacted us to see if she could work here, because of our work with a similar drug, and because some of the 100 or so mycobacteria strains she wanted to test weren’t readily available in Mexico,” Brown-Elliott said.

Molina is studying for her doctoral degree in microbiology at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey. She came to the Health Center at the recommendation of her mentor, Dr. Lucio Vera. She plans to finish her Ph. D. in microbiology in August. For her doctoral research, she is investigating how tuberculosis bacteria cause disease.

Molina said she wanted to see how the UTHSCT nontuberculous mycobacteria lab worked and to learn the techniques it used.

“I like this work. There is much to be learned about mycobacteria, and I want to contribute to the study of it,” she said. In the UTHSCT lab, she has been exposing various nontuberculous mycobacteria to the new antibiotic to see if it kills the microorganisms or retards their growth.

Molina has seen the need for the development of new drugs and treatments firsthand. Her mother was a hospital administrator, and Molina herself worked in a clinical lab in a Monterrey hospital. These experiences led her to choose research as a career.

“There is a lot of tuberculosis in my country. Tuberculosis was the area that I was interested in studying,” she said. After she receives her degree, Molina hopes to get a postdoctoral fellowship or a faculty teaching job in a university.

When not in the lab, Molina has been enjoying the warm weather and the warmth of East Texans. “People have been very kind to me,” she said.

Molina’s research also has been going very well, despite some initial setbacks when supplies for her experiments failed to arrive, Brown-Elliott said. Fortunately, some researchers in UTHSCT’s Center for Pulmonary and Infectious Disease Control stepped in and lent her what she needed.

“Carmen is very focused on her studies. She’s done really well. She’s already obtained some preliminary results, and she will complete her study by the end of this week,” Brown-Elliott said.

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