Aimee Shen of Tufts Medical School granted PATH award from Burroughs Wellcome Fund

Shen’s research will focus on the role of DNA modifications in regulating C. difficile’s ability to transmit disease

Aimee Shen, microbiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine, researches C. difficile.

BOSTON (June 25, 2018)—Aimee Shen, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine is one of 12 new recipients nationwide of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2018 Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease (PATH) award. Her research is on Clostridium difficile, a leading cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea and gastroenteritis-associated death in the United States.

The PATH award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) supports early career assistant professors whose research improves the understanding of interactions between bacteria and humans that lead to infectious disease.

Shen’s lab at Tufts University School of Medicine researches the mechanisms by which C. difficile bacteria develop and transmit infectious disease to humans. The BWF award will allow Shen’s lab to study the role of DNA modifications in regulating C. difficile’s ability to transmit disease. These DNA modifications may also affect traits related to antibiotic resistance and virulence.

Shen’s previous work focused on how C. difficile bacteria can thrive in the oxygen-free environment of the human gut, where they secrete toxins leading to disease. Since C. difficile cannot survive in the presence of oxygen, C. difficile forms protective spores that allow it to survive in the environment after it is excreted from the body in feces. These infectious spores allow C. difficile to infect another human or the same individual upon germinating again in the gut environment and outgrowing to form the toxin-secreting cells.

While investigating the mechanisms of spore creation and bacteria germination, Shen discovered that germination relies on interactions between proteins in the outer spore layer and bile salts in the host’s digestive fluid. Shen’s lab also identified a protein that increases production of the infectious spores. This research is important to determine which stages of bacterial development can be targeted to decrease the incidence of disease transmittance and to develop therapies for infectious disease.

C. difficile is responsible for almost 500,000 infections per year. The spores responsible for protecting the bacteria outside of the host are resistant to most disinfectants and hand sanitizers, which makes it difficult to contain the spread of infection. A better understanding of spore formation and germination could facilitate the development of spore-specific therapies to help reduce disease transmission,” said Shen.

Shen is also the director of the Pathway to the Ph.D. (P2P) program, a three week, research-intensive experience that is part of the Tufts University School of Medicine/University of Massachusetts Boston (TUSM/UMass Boston) Enrichment Program. The P2P program focuses on providing groups underrepresented in science with an introduction to biomedical research and provides career training to UMass Boston undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in science.

Shen also serves on the advisory committee for the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), which provides research training for recent college graduates pursuing careers in biomedical sciences. PREP, funded by an award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, is also designed to increase the number of people going into research careers from groups underrepresented in biomedical sciences.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) is a private foundation that has invested in biomedical research and careers for more than 60 years. The BWF PATH award is granted to multidisciplinary scientists early in their career, and promotes novel approaches and higher risk research which can lead to significant innovation and further understanding of infectious disease. Each PATH award provides faculty at the assistant professor level with $500,000 over a five-year period.

Written with Theodore Fitopoulos, M.S., recent graduate of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

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