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USask researcher earns SHRF award for examining connection between histamine, infectious bacteria

By Matt Olson for SHRF

Dr. Jessica Sheldon has always been a curious person.

As an Assistant Professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology & Immunology, Sheldon has had the chance to explore that curiosity down to the microscopic level.

And now, her curiosity and hard work have earned her a prestigious Excellence Award from the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation. SHRF’s Excellence Awards recognize the top-ranked applications from researchers and teams in the previous year’s peer-reviewed funding competitions. Applications are scored through a rigorous peer-review process by committees of active researchers and health professionals.

Sheldon’s project, titled “More Than Just Allergy: How Histamine Impacts Infection by a Multi-Drug Resistant Pathogen” was the top-scored application from the pool of Establishment Grants within the field of biomedical research.

SHRF’s Establishment Grant is designed to strengthen research capacity and competitiveness by funding early-career researchers in Saskatchewan. This was the first independent funding Sheldon had ever received as a researcher, and an achievement she said she’s still coming to terms with.

“I think every day I’m still a little shocked that I’m here,” she said. “When you work your whole life to get somewhere, when you land there, it’s surreal.”

Sheldon’s project centres on a bacterium called Acinetobacter baumannii (A. baumannii). This bacterium is highly antibiotic-resistant, and it produces histamine as part of the infection process.

The histamine produced by A. baumannii appears to help the bacteria gather the important growth nutrient iron. Sheldon’s theory is that the histamine generated increases the survivability of the bacteria — especially in the face of antibiotics — in the host.

“If it turns out that histamine exacerbates infection within the host, then the ultimate goal is to determine whether or not — if we use already-approved therapeutics, like antihistamines and mast cell stabilizing drugs — we can improve infection outcomes,” Sheldon said.

The research into A. baumannii and its potential drug-resistant properties took on new meaning during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A. baumannii is commonly found in hospital settings, specifically in ventilated patients as a cause of ventilator-associated pneumonia.

Sheldon said new research suggests that some COVID-19 patients have experienced secondary infections from this bacterium. As COVID-19 patients are treated with antibiotics, either as a necessity or precaution, Sheldon said researchers are seeing increased drug resistance from A. baumannii.

It helped drive home her belief that the next time the world experiences a pandemic, it will be due to a drug-resistant pathogen — and it gave her research a new importance.

“Bacteria can be so small, but they can be so powerful,” she said. “We’ve seen it with COVID — something we can’t see can change the face of the world.”

Dr. Jessica Sheldon , University of Saskatchewan

Sheldon’s interest in A. baumannii began during her postdoctoral studies at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee when her supervisor gave her the choice of various bacterial genes to work on.

It wasn’t a random selection, though. Sheldon has a personal interest in studying this histamine-generating organism, because she developed an immune disorder during the completion of her PhD that causes her to be unable to metabolize histamine properly.

“My doctor saw, just anecdotally in his practice, this link between getting treated with antibiotics, having major bacterial infections, and this development of basically an allergy disorder,” she said. “It’s what got me thinking about this … my personal experience made me aware of a problem that didn’t have an answer.”

If her theories are proven correct, Sheldon and her team could create a new, readily-available and cost-effective solution for those dealing with dangerous and antibiotic-resistant infections.

"Antibiotic-resistant bacterium pose major risks to Saskatchewan's population health, both during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. SHRF is proud to support Dr. Sheldon's important research, and to celebrate her Establishment-Biomedical Grant with an Excellence Award." - Patrick Odnokon, SHRF CEO


To learn more about the recipients of SHRF's 2022-23 Santé Awards, click here.

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