$30,000 Awarded to Graduate Student for Bacterial Innovation

Timothy K. Lu G is a prize-winning killer.

To be more precise, on Wednesday, he won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Inventiveness for developing methods to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The prize will support research that aims to contain one of the deadliest threats known to biologists.

“I’m very honored,” said Lu at the awards ceremony Wednesday. “I’ve been working in the lab for three or four years doing my Ph.D., it’s nice to be recognized,” he said.

Lu described two major sources of infections that his research fights: hard-to-kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and biofilms, bacteria sticking to surfaces.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is one example of such a “superbug” which in 2005 killed nearly 19,000 people in the United States, surpassing the death toll due to AIDS in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lu’s research modifies bacteriophages, viruses that attack bacteria, to make them deadly to biofilms. The bacteriophages weaken the defense mechanisms of biofilms, making the biofilms susceptible to antibiotics which ordinarily could not destroy them.

“The next step is to bring it to the real world,” Lu said. “Currently it’s just a really cool thing in the lab,” he said. But Lu plans to collaborate with the CDC to make real-world tests of the technology.

The most practical applications could target industry, starting with food processing plants. Once the technology has been proven, it might eventually be used in clinical trials.

Lu said that one important goal is to “expand the library of phages.” Currently his techniques only uses one phage, targeted at E. Coli.

“I started off as a techie,” said Lu, who majored in Course VI as an undergraduate and received an M.Eng in 2003. He developed an interest in biology while working with Prof. Rahul Sarpeshkar of RLE to “make devices that stimulate the inner ear for deaf people.”

Later, after entering the HST program and witnessing patients crippled with infections first-hand while working in local hospitals, Lu “got interested in fighting bacterial infections.” Switching to the field of synthetic biology which he describes as “programming cells or modifying organisms” was not a complete departure from his original computer science background. Lu compared the “ability to program DNA” to the “early years of engineering semiconductors.”

Lu said the most exciting time during his “many, many late nights in the lab” came when he made his first effective phage.

The prize money’s use is unrestricted, but Lu said he plans to spend it on furthering his research.

This is the second year that the Lemelson-MIT Program, which recognizes outstanding inventors, has offered a prize to an MIT student. Lu said his advisor, J.J. Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, encouraged him to apply.