2009 Science, Technology and Environment

Patricia Guerry

Created the Campylobacter vaccine to prevent the world’s top cause of food-borne intestinal illness.

If you’ve ever suffered through a bad case of food poisoning, you’ll be glad to know that Naval scientist Patricia Guerry has made a breakthrough that may dramatically reduce the odds that you’ll have to relive this miserable experience.

Food-borne illness strikes more than 76 million Americans a year and hundreds of millions worldwide, and its most common cause in the United Sates is the Campylobacter microbe. Dr. Guerry of the Naval Medical Research Center has invented a new vaccine against Campylobacter, which has worked spectacularly in early trials and may be only a couple of years away from human trials.

“She is the number one researcher on campylobacter in the United States, if not the world,” said Dr. Alison O’Brien, President of the American Society for Microbiology.

“Her breakthroughs have been innovative and had a major impact on biomedicine,” said Dr. Trevor Trust of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca “She’s one of the smartest scientists I know. She produces world-leading science.”

The Campylobacter infection was discovered in the late 1970s and became a hot topic for scientific research. After a few years, most researchers found it too difficult to understand and quit studying it. Dr. Guerry continued with her research, only to achieve success several years later.

“When Campylobacter was first discovered, nobody really knew anything about it. After I began researching it, the Defense Department mandated that I figure it out for our troops,” said Dr. Guerry.

After decades of study, Dr. Guerry appears to be on the cusp of satisfying the military’s mandate. Over the past three years, the rate of her research has been progressing at a breakneck pace. Working with Canadian chemist Mario Monteiro, Dr. Guerry’s group has advanced a vaccine through a series of tests that culminated in a definitive monkey trial in 2008. The vaccinated animals were completely protected from intestinal disease when challenged with this debilitating microbe. Dr. Guerry has already marshaled the resources for human trials to commence in the next few years.

“In solving the problem for the military, she is also helping Third World nations as Campylobacter is a leading cause of food-borne illness in children in underdeveloped countries,” said Captain Chris Daniel who is the commanding officer of Guerry’s lab at the Naval Medical Research Center.

Dr. Guerry successfully overcame many challenges.

Because of its unique make-up, this microorganism was impervious to the tools for genetic manipulation then available. Dr. Guerry had to develop her own set of new tools to study Campylobacter, and these tools are now widely used across the Navy and the world.

Another barrier was that, prior to her work, scientists didn’t believe that bacteria could produce sugars within proteins. Dr. Guerry discovered that Campylobacter had sugar on its surface, which is what made it so difficult to combat, but provided the basis for the vaccine.

Guerry’s work on this vaccine started out with limited resources.

“You take something hard. You stick with it when other people leave. That’s leadership,” said Dr. Trust in describing the significance of Dr. Guerry’s work.

“She has two defining characteristics,” said Alison O’Brien. “First, she’s intelligent. She has an analytical mind; when she makes a discovery, she will re-test and go to great lengths to prove her discovery is correct. Second, she’s ethical. She has extreme concerns about the vaccine having an adverse reaction in humans and has garnered the respect of her colleagues for measures she takes to assure her work is done only to make lives better.”

Dr. Guerry’s vaccine could have major implications in alleviating suffering for our troops, who are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning. But the potential benefits are even greater in poorer nations, where the Campylobacter microbe can be fatal.

“I’ve been given a two-year grant from NIH to make this vaccine human testable,” said Dr. Guerry. A lot of people, from our military personnel to anyone who’s ever had food poisoning, are hoping she succeeds.