On the frontlines to protect our furry friends.

The endless battle to stay one step ahead of drug-resistant bacteria isn’t limited to humans; our four-legged friends are in the fight as well.

Staphylococcus pseudintermedius, the bacteria behind staph infections, is the most common opportunistic pathogen in dogs. Dogs with underlying health problems, such as persistent allergies that lead to continuous scratching, are the most vulnerable. Once behind the skin barrier, the bacteria can wreak havoc unless treated with an appropriate antibiotic. Unfortunately, over the last 15 years methicillin resistance in dogs has exploded – In 2007, only three short years after the initial discovery of the resistance, over one-third of all canine staph infections studied at the UT Veterinary Medical Center were resistant to the antibiotic, a characteristic associated with resistance to most antibiotics available to veterinarians.

Enter the University of Tennessee’s Stephen Kania.

A professor in the Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences at UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM), Stephen’s research team specializes in veterinary infectious diseases. As UT veterinarians encountered ever-growing cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (known as MRSP), they approached him about the possibility of finding a solution. Working with research partners in veterinary infectious diseases, Stephen set about developing a vaccine for MRSP.

Developing a new vaccine requires a marathon of investigations and puzzle-solving. To overcome the first hurdle, the researchers needed to identify what, exactly, they were up against: What did MRSP look like? Were there multiple strains? To get to the bottom of these central questions, the team developed a new approach. Expanding upon an established technique known as multilocus sequence typing, they created a novel typing method to characterize distinct microbial species of Staphylococcus pseudintermedius.

Next, with funding from the American Kennel Club, Stephen obtained bacteria samples from all 10 geographical regions of the U.S. After surveying and comparing the samples, the team ultimately identified three predominant strains of the drug-resistant bacteria.

With the three strains identified, and support from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture Center of Excellence in Livestock Diseases and Human Health, Stephen helped conduct genomic sequencing, identifying every gene contained within the three strains. In the end, the researchers identified more than 2,300 potential proteins. They set about rooting out the proteins located on the surface of the bacteria, the ones most vulnerable to an immune response.

During the protein analysis, Stephen and his colleagues realized that MRSP is fundamentally an immunological disorder – the methicillin-resistant bacteria developed effective ways to suppress dogs’ immune systems. The researchers modified the key proteins they identified with changes in the amino acids, rendering them harmless to the canine hosts. They produced antibodies against not only these modified proteins, but also the naturally occurring proteins in MRSP.

And thus, a vaccine was born.

UTRF is currently guiding Stephen and his colleagues through the patent application process for the new vaccine, which was successfully tested in a pilot study of dogs who came to UT veterinary clinic with staph infections in skin wounds.

“The innovations born in UT’s labs are life-changing not only for humans but for our fellow animals,” said Nghia Chiem, UTRF licensing associate. “UTRF serves to bring revolutionary technologies like this vaccine to the public where they can meet relevant market needs and enrich the lives of people and dogs alike.”

The MRSP vaccine has enormous implications for the health and care of dogs. Once commercially available, it could be used therapeutically to keep Staph infections at bay in dogs with severe allergies. It also holds enormous promise for canine orthopedic surgeons, who battle the risk of Staph infection in dogs undergoing surgery due to the bacteria’s omnipresence on the skin of most animals.

Stephen knew he wanted to work in a lab from the moment he stepped into one as an undergraduate at Eastern Connecticut State University. Following graduation, he spent time working on infectious diseases at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. As he continued in his studies, he found that those conducting medical research on animals often had little to no familiarity with the animals themselves.

“I realized the need for researchers who focused on solving problems for animals,” Stephen said, explaining his pursuit of a PhD in veterinary infectious diseases at the University of Florida. “I like studying animal diseases for the benefit of animals.”

Images courtesy of UTCVM.