Sepsis affects approximately 1 million people in the United States and causes a death every two minutes, according to the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD). Now, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), is recognizing the work of Robert K. Ernst, PhD, in fighting this blood-borne bacterial infection by naming him its 2017 Researcher of the Year.
“The award is a huge honor for me and all the past and present members of my lab,” said Ernst, professor and vice chair of the Department of Microbial Pathogenesis at UMSOD. “I learn with them and, many times, good things come from their hard work.”
Ernst earned his MA at the State University of New York in Buffalo and his doctorate from the University of Virginia. Since joining UMSOD in 2008, he has received more than $3 million in research funding. Much of Ernst’s work centers around sepsis, which costs the United States about $20 billion each year and causes more deaths than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined.
The risk of death from sepsis ranges from 30% to 80%, depending on the severity of symptoms. Those who survive the disease remain at risk for long-term effects including amputations, anxiety, memory loss, chronic pain and fatigue, and poor cognitive function. Thus far, there are no therapeutics approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating the cytokine storm associated with advanced sepsis.
“Antibiotic resistance is an immense threat to global public health,” said UMSOD dean Mark A. Reynolds, DDS, PhD. “And Dr. Ernst’s laboratory has made continued progress toward the identification of Gram-negative modifications that lead to untreatable infections.”
Last year, Ernst founded a startup company called Pataigin with David R. Goodlett, PhD, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Last fall, Pataigin received a $25,000 Maryland Department of Commerce Life Award to support a patented test that inexpensively identifies bacteria- and fungi-causing infections in less than an hour so physicians can make decisions in the hospital at the point of care.
“We would like to be able to rapidly bacteria and fungi directly from biological samples [blood, urine, wound effluent] so that clinicians can make more informed decisions to reduce the use of inappropriate antibiotics, thereby helping the patient. If we can reduce the size and cost of the instrumentation, it would be ideal to have it in any clinical setting or make it mobile so that it could be easily deployable in an outbreak or Third World setting,” said Ernst.
“This is the most collegial university that I’ve been associated with. The Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and our department work together hand-in-glove. We are now branching out to do work with cancer researchers at UMB, MedImmune, and the National Cancer Institute, as they are also looking for novel mechanisms to attack cancer cells in the body,” said Enrst, who also enjoys his work with dental students.
“There are 400 to 500 different species of bacteria in the mouth, laid down like tiles,” said Ernst. “With over 60 microbiology UMB faculty on campus, our dental students get superior training in microbiology. Today’s dentists are ‘above the shoulders’ specialists, and the training they get here makes them a more complete dentist.”