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JSRI students spend their summers
battling bacteria

No one knows where the next great development in medical science could occur.

Most people might expect a high-tech lab with state-of-the-art equipment and a host of white-coated researchers. Others will envision a renowned university or even a world-class medical facility. 

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Few are likely to suggest the work of summer-school students in a typical classroom studying cell samples collected from standing water, toilet bowls or cow manure. But that might be a mistake.

Last month (June 2022), several current and former high-schoolers convened daily in a second-floor classroom at Parker High School as part of the Janesville Summer Research Institute (JSRI). There, they investigated how antibiotic resistance continues to evolve in certain bacteria and how once-feared viruses might play a key role in mutating or killing the stubborn microbes.

Obviously, this isn’t your standard summer school class. What students uncover here could realistically help uncover the secrets to one of humanity’s greatest emerging threats – superbugs.

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“If you want to get philosophical about it, it’s if you believe you can change the world,” explained Isabella Cassioppi, a junior involved in the program. “Do I necessarily believe I personally, by myself, have the ability to do that? No, not really. But I believe that, throughout the years, with this research we’re doing, we could make an impact in the future.”

That optimism is a byproduct of Dr. Zach Pratt, a Parker biology teacher with an extensive background in biochemistry and microbiology. Pratt holds a doctorate in cancer biology from UW-Madison and since 2019, he has been using connections at his alma mater to help bolster the JSRI program.

“Luckily, my grad school advisor (Bill Sugden) was an associate director at the Carbone Cancer Center in Madison (when I started the program),” Pratt said. “He said, ‘Write me up a synopsis and tell me what you need in terms of money and how much you want, and we’ll see if we can figure it out.'”

That first year, Carbone came up with about $6,000 to help fund Pratt’s program. Last year, the amount increased to $7,000.

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The main requirement for funding from Carbone is that work must somehow correlate to cancer research. Since cancer patients rely heavily on antibiotics to prevent infections, JRSI’s research seems to check that box.

Though Pratt and his students know their work isn’t necessarily on par with that of big-budget labs, they find it equally fascinating.

The aforementioned “superbugs” are bacteria that evolve to the point they develop a resistance to standard antibiotics. This is an ever-growing health concern the medical community believes could someday rival cancer in terms of worldwide death rates.

In the search for a solution, researchers are experimenting with bacteriophages, or phages – viruses capable of killing selectively targeted bacteria without harming humans, animals or plants.

In Pratt’s lab, students collect samples from various sources in an effort to find phages. Those that develop are exposed to a lab strain of E. coli bacteria to see if the E. coli develops a resistance.

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“We find phages that bind the bacteria’s efflux pumps (a sort of ‘sump pump’ that expels an antibiotic from the bacteria),” Pratt said. “If the efflux pump works as it normally should, then the phage can attach to it and infect the E. coli. However, if the efflux pump is mutated, then the phage cannot attach to it, and the E. coli is susceptible to antibiotics.

“So we force the E. coli to make a decision: be resistant to the phage or be resistant to the antibiotic. The bacteria can’t be resistant to both at the same time.”

Even after students determine whether or not the phages have accomplished their intended missions, myriad tests remain – and answers often lead to more questions. This is a critical point in Pratt’s lesson: that continuous testing and retesting are not only necessary but invaluable to a future scientist’s growth and experience.

“A big part of what we do is all about repetition,” he said. “You can learn a lab technique, but unless you’ve done it a few times to where you can do part of it by memory, you might not really understand it. It’s the same thing with research. (It's about getting students) to ask themselves why they are doing it so when people start to ask questions, they can say “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that” or elaborate or hypothesize about where they think the results are leading.”

In both 2019 and this year, JRSI students wrapped up the summer program with visits to UW-Madison, where they met with scientists conducting similar research and toured lab facilities at both Carbone and UW Hospital.

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The students recognize the cache that comes with being part of JRSI. One student, Emma Thurner, recently graduated from Parker yet still returned to the program for the opportunity to work with Pratt and expand her knowledge base.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to learn more about my future career, because I want to pursue research and microbiology,” said Thurner, who is attending UW-La Crosse in the fall. “I’ve always liked science, and Dr. Pratt has always been one of my favorite teachers. I know kids that just take science classes just so they can be one of his students.”

Another student, sophomore Emma Purdy, aspires to someday become a NICU (newborn intensive care unit) nurse. Her goal is to broaden her knowledge of biology through the program.

“I’ve worked with E. coli before, but I’ve never worked with phages and stuff like that," she said. "I had no idea what any of that was. It’s always taken a little bit for me to understand that stuff, but as I’m working with it and really just jumping in, it’s all starting to make more sense.” 

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For Pratt, the JRSI program is the driver that originally led him to the School District of Janesville. After initially presenting the idea to former Superintendent Steve Pophal in 2019, he found himself with an opportunity to join the district as a teacher. The rest is history.

“It got to a point, I think in graduate school, where I said, ‘I’m not going to win a Nobel Prize, but I want to raise the person who’s going to win a Nobel Prize,’” he said. “So for me, it’s about getting (the students) engaged or helping them figure out if this is something they want to do in the future.

“Even if they don’t want to, at least they have had the experience.”

For more information about the Janesville Research Institute program, email Pratt at zachary.pratt@janesville.k12.wi.us. To learn more about bacteriophages, check out the video “The Deadliest Being on Planet Earth – The Bacteriophage” from Kurzgesagt.