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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who goes toe-to-toe with superbugs

PhD candidate Hala Youssef is fighting infection for a post-antibiotic age
October 10, 2017
By Meagan Boisse

Hala Youssef: "Broad-spectrum antibiotics are becoming less effective. We need new antimicrobial treatments." Hala Youssef: "Broad-spectrum antibiotics are becoming less effective. We need new antimicrobial treatments."

Imagine having a bacterial infection that doctors can’t stop from spreading. Unfortunately, with the advent of drug-resistant superbugs, this scenario is becoming more than just a distant possibility.

However, one Concordian is actively working to stop these infections in their tracks.

Hala Youssef (BSc 13), a PhD candidate in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is conducting research into unlocking the body’s potential to fight bacteria in the post-antibiotic age.

‘Antimicrobial research will benefit the development of new antibiotics’

How does this specific image relate to your research at Concordia?

Hala Youssef: I work on characterizing the behaviour of antimicrobial peptides. These are small molecular proteins that are part of our innate immune response to bacteria, viruses and fungi.

I use many techniques to understand why peptides with small differences in sequence can have very different membrane specificities. In other words, why they can be selective toward bacterial but not human cells.

This image depicts our current theory on how a particular peptide called GL13K interacts with negatively charged, microbe-like membranes.

What is the hoped-for result of your project?

HY: Our hopes are to establish the mechanisms by which these peptides interact with membranes so that we can develop a better understanding of the relationship between peptide sequence and structure.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

HY: The major challenge is to get a complete picture of the mechanism as a whole, because each technique we use probes only a very small part of it. 

However, by using a large array of characterization techniques and model membranes, we can develop a comprehensive understanding of how these peptides work!

In which key areas could your work be applied?

HY: Antimicrobial research will benefit the development of new antibiotics, as well as antibacterial surface coatings for surgical implants. For example, the presence of antimicrobial agents at the implant site can prevent infection, which is particularly common in the case of dental implants.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject?

HY: I first learned about membrane studies when I took Biophysical Chemistry (CHEM 335). I found myself really enjoying the applied examples in the course, which required you to develop an understanding of the behaviour of a protein or peptide based on data collected by different techniques.

As for the research project I’m involved in now, a large motivator is the prominent threat of antibiotic resistance and superbugs. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are becoming less effective, and we need new antimicrobial treatments before we enter the post-antibiotic era. I started working on this project as an undergraduate student for my honours research project.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research? What advice would you give them?

HY: My advice would be to approach your instructors and teaching assistants. Ask them about their research interests and whether there are any spots available to work in their research labs. There are many opportunities for research as an undergraduate student, either as part of your coursework or as a paid researcher. So go for it!

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

HY: One of my favourite things about Concordia is how approachable the professors and administration are. They are always there when you need help or guidance. Concordia also has a spectacular Co-op program, where students can really explore their career options and get a taste of what to expect after graduation.

Which partners or agencies support your research?

My research is funded by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies.

Find out more about the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.



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