Contact: Sarah Nicholas
STARKVILLE, Miss. – A Mississippi State faculty member and structural biophysicist is the recipient of a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how bacterial proteins attach to surfaces and impact public health.
Nicholas Fitzkee, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Chemistry, has been awarded an NIH R01 grant — the original and oldest grant mechanism used by NIH — which provides support for a “specified, circumscribed project” for health-related research and development. Fitzkee’s grant will be appropriated over five years.
Recipients of an R01 compete with faculty from elite universities across the country and are typically determined to be in the top 10 percent of their field. Fitzkee’s research, formally titled “The structure, orientation and competitive interactions of S. epidermidis biofilm proteins on surfaces,” investigates how bacterial proteins interact with and attach to plastic and glass surfaces.
“One of the problems facing our healthcare system is hospital-associated infections,” Fitzkee said. Infections cost “thousands of lives and billions of dollars annually” and can originate with implanted medical devices.
“Bacteria can coat the surfaces of these devices, forming biofilms, which is the root cause of many infections” Fitzkee said.
Fitzkee hopes that understanding the molecular forces involved in bacterial attachment to surfaces will help scientists develop medical implants that are more resistant to biofilm formation.
“This project lies at the intersection of surface chemistry, molecular biophysics and nanotechnology,” Fitzke said. “All three are very exciting fields to be working in right now.”
After joining the MSU faculty in 2011, Fitzkee’s research group — collectively known as the Fitzkee Lab — began studying the relationship between protein dynamics and function.
“This grant has elevated the Fitzkee Lab and MSU’s Department of Chemistry to the very top levels of competition within this leading agency for health science and medical research,” said Dennis Smith, department head and professor. “Dr. Fitzkee continues to set the bar in all areas.”
“Training is a huge part of what we do,” Fitzkee said, “One of the things I love about MSU is the ability to be passionate about both research and mentoring. This project will give students an opportunity to use cutting-edge tools to work on a very practical problem. I am particularly grateful to the former Ph.D. and graduate students who have already worked in the lab, because this funding is really a testament to those who helped collect the preliminary data and write the early papers.”
Three Ph.D. students and several undergraduates are currently assisting with Fitzkee’s lab research. Lab activities include spectroscopic, microscopic and biophysical investigation of proteins on nanoparticles.
“I work with very talented people – students, faculty and staff alike, and the facilities at MSU are top-notch,” Fitzkee said. “I’m pleased that this funding helps contribute to our department’s forward momentum.”
Fitzkee has received funding from several different sources, including the NIH, NSF EPSCoR and the Henry Family Foundation prior to his NIH R01 grant. For more information on the NIH, visit www.grants.nih.gov.
“Dr. Fitzkee is making deep impressions on the academic community that works at the intersection of chemistry, biology and physics,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Rick Travis. “He is clearly becoming one of the university’s leading researchers, and his work is helping to increase our national reputation.”
“We are grateful for the level of diligence Dr. Fitzkee invests in his work and his dedication to students,” Travis added.
A native of York, Pennsylvania, Fitzkee received his Ph.D. in biophysics in 2005 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He received his bachelor’s degree in computational physics in 2001 from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
MSU’s Department of Chemistry was founded in 1878 and hosts the oldest American Chemical Society accredited program in the state.
The College of Arts and Sciences includes more than 5,200 students, 300 full-time faculty members, nine doctoral programs and 25 academic majors offered in 14 departments. Complete details about the College of Arts and Sciences or the chemistry department may be found at www.cas.msstate.edu or www.chemistry.msstate.edu.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.