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Helen E. Blackwell: Taking on dangerous diseases one bacterium at a time

"Chemistry is the basis for so much around us — you can't help but see it and be amazed."

Helen BlackwellAn effective communicator with everyone from non-scientific audiences to graduate-level college students, UW-Madison Associate Chemistry Professor Helen E. Blackwell is one of the truly outstanding young chemists in the country. She is recognized as a major leader in scientific research, while also teaching undergraduate chemistry classes and mentoring graduate students. Last year she was named one of Popular Science magazine’s "Brilliant 10."

As disease-causing bacteria continue to be a serious threat to public health, Professor Blackwell and her group are exploring a new way to fight these dangerous microorganisms. This work is important because, while disease bacteria can be harmless in small numbers, they become much more dangerous when they congregate. Each individual bacterium makes and releases chemicals that can be detected by other bacteria, which is called "quorum sensing." When large amounts of these chemicals are detected, the bacteria gang up and can produce "biofilms" which are slimy bacterial mats (basically, layers of bacteria) that cause chronic infections and even dental plaque.

Blackwell’s approach is to trick the bacteria by developing new chemicals that either mimic or block this communication between bacteria. This same trick could also be used to encourage the activities of good bacteria — such as those that eat pollution or manufacture biofuels. They have already found many promising new compounds to block the communication between two of the most dangerous infections: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (an opportunistic infection that targets patients with compromised immune systems).

MRSA has been known as the most resistant hospital-acquired infection, but people are now also getting it outside hospital settings. "Strains are emerging that are resistant to all known antibiotics," says Blackwell. "It’s reaching crisis proportion and this is going to become a real issue in the next decade." She notes that most large pharmaceutical companies are no longer involved in this type of research because the drugs are not seen as profitable. But her goal is to develop these therapeutic drugs, in hopes that academic research can fill this gap left by the drug companies.

In addition to her groundbreaking research, she is also devoted to her undergraduate and graduate students. During her time at UW, Blackwell has won numerous teaching awards, including the UW-Madison Chancellors Award for Distinguished Teaching (2006), the DuPont Young Professor Award and the James Taylor Teaching Award (both 2007).

"WISL seeks to communicate the importance of science to a broader audience communication is an underlying theme in my research. Only if we fully understand the words, can we have a meaningful conversation. We are learning that this now extends from bacteria to humans!"

Visit Professor Blackwell's web site: www.chem.wisc.edu/blackwell

Read Dava Sobel's "Field Notes" piece on Blackwell from Discover Magazine





For more information contact SciFun@chem.wisc.edu