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OU College of Medicine, Dean McGee Eye Institute Researcher Earns $1.8 Million Grant to Study Staphylococcal Eye Infections

OU College of Medicine, Dean McGee Eye Institute Researcher Earns $1.8 Million Grant to Study Staphylococcal Eye Infections

Staphylococcus aureus, one of more than 30 types of staphylococcal bacteria, can be devastating to vision when it infects the eye. To better understand how the bacterium begins the infection process, a researcher at the OU College of Medicine and Dean McGee Eye Institute has earned a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Eye Institute, a component of the National Institutes of Health.

During her career, Michelle Callegan, Ph.D., Director of Vision Research at Dean McGee Eye Institute, has investigated various pathogens that cause infections of the eye, including Klebsiella and Bacillus. Her current focus on Staphylococcus aureus brings her full circle — when she was a graduate student, she developed the first-ever research model of staphylococcal keratitis, an infection of the cornea that can threaten vision if not treated promptly.

“Staphylococci live in and on us, and most of the time they don’t cause problems,” Callegan said. “But when Staphylococcus aureus is able to start an infection, it can cause serious complications anywhere in the body, including the eyes. In addition, Staphylococcus aureus is on the Centers for Disease Control’s list of serious threats because of antibiotic resistance.”

Researchers understand less about how Staphylococcus aureus begins an infection in the eye than they do subsequent parts of the infection process. Callegan decided to focus on that initial part of an infection, when Staphylococcus aureus is able to circumvent the eye’s immune defenses. Staphylococcus aureus is a very “sticky” bacterium because of its ability to adhere to tissue, she said. Once stuck to the surface, Staphylococcus aureus forms abscesses and secretes toxins that kill surrounding cells.

That is the case in Staphylococcus aureus keratitis, an infection that can result in corneal perforation and the need for a corneal transplant. Keratitis is common in contact lens wearers who do not take proper care of their lenses, Callegan said. The bacterium acts similarly in exogenous endophthalmitis, an infection inside the eye that can occur after surgery or an injury to the eye.

Staphylococcus aureus also displays unique behavior in endogenous endophthalmitis, in which an infection originates elsewhere in the body then travels to the eye via the bloodstream. Whereas some bacteria, like Klebsiella, can only cross the barrier between the bloodstream and retina if the vasculature is “leaky” (sometimes caused by conditions like diabetic retinopathy), Staphylococcus aureus can cross the barrier even when it has maintained its integrity. Callegan’s research team was the first to prove that aspect of Staphylococcus aureus’s behavior.

Staphylococcus aureus isn’t stopped by the barrier — it will go across vasculature that is leaky or intact,” Callegan said. “We don’t know why Staphylococcus aureus ignores the ocular barrier. It will produce an abscess almost anywhere. The eye is just another place that, if the bacterium can find its way in, will create problems. And if such infections aren’t treated properly, people can lose their vision.”

With her new grant, Callegan aims to better understand why Staphylococcus aureus is able to circumvent the body’s ocular defenses and cause blinding infections. Although staphylococcal species share characteristics, Staphylococcus aureus is among the most dangerous for the eyes and the body.

“The more bacteria that we work with, the more we discover that they’re all very different. Different species have different ways of interacting with the immune response in the body. It’s worth investigating them individually, but if you can pinpoint aspects of these different organisms that are similar, you can target these factors and develop new treatments to fight them,” said Callegan, who is also a professor in the Departments of Ophthalmology and Microbiology and Immunology in the OU College of Medicine.

Research reported in this press release is supported by the National Eye Institute, a component of the National Institutes of Health, under the award number 1R01 EY032073-01A1. The project has also received support from Presbyterian Health Foundation in Oklahoma City.