Battling Antimicrobial Resistance with Biomedical Science: An Interview with Joseph Wade

A portrait of Joe Wade

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 1, 2022) – Antimicrobial resistance is a growing public health threat. The CDC estimates that each year, approximately 1.27 million people will die as a result of infection with a resistant pathogen; in 2019, this number rose to unprecedented levels with nearly 5 million deaths worldwide.

Joseph Wade of the Department of Biomedical Sciences runs a lab at the Wadsworth Center dedicated to researching bacterial gene regulation. His work aims to better understand how bacterial genetics contribute to antibiotic resistance. We sat down for an interview with Wade to talk about the research performed in his lab and how students can become involved in biomedical research here at the School of Public Health.

First, can you briefly explain what your research involves?

Most of my research focuses on how bacteria regulate their genes to adapt to different environments. Some aspects of our work look at fundamental mechanisms that likely apply in many bacterial species, and other aspects look at specific processes such as infection of the human gut by Salmonella Typhimurium.

For example, we have a very good understanding of how proteins are made in bacteria, but we showed recently that there is a second way that proteins are made that has been largely ignored because it isn’t used in the few bacterial species that are studied the most. This alternative way of making proteins is common in many less well-studied bacterial species and we’re only just starting to understand how it works.

Why is this work important to the field of public health?

Antibiotic resistance is a huge clinical problem that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. It is vitally important that we develop new ways to treat bacterial infections. Research that aims to understand the mechanisms of how bacteria evolve is fundamental to our ability to develop new therapies to replace antibiotics that are no longer effective.

Gene regulation contributes to the virulence of all pathogenic bacterial species, so increasing our understanding of gene regulation may identify new targets for antibacterial therapy. Antibiotic resistance is also frequently a regulated process, with bacteria switching on resistance genes only when exposed to an antibiotic. Understanding the processes of how bacteria switch on their resistance genes may allow us to find ways to circumvent resistance mechanisms.

More generally, biomedical research helps us understand disease processes so we can improve treatment options. It also helps us develop new diagnostic methods. Both areas are critical to a strong public health program. You can see that very clearly in the Department of Biomedical Sciences here at the School of Public Health where we have groups studying the mechanisms of disease processes working alongside groups doing diagnostics and surveillance work.

How did you get into this type of research?

Mostly luck! When I was an undergraduate, I took a course in bacterial genetics that I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed a course in vesicle transport, so when I was thinking about doing a PhD I applied to labs working on either of those topics. I happened to find a lab working on bacterial gene regulation that I thought looked interesting, and I have never looked back!

Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in doing this type of research?

Doing a Master’s degree or PhD in Biomedical Sciences can lead to a very wide range of rewarding career options. The technical and analytical skills you learn can be used in careers ranging from working in academic science, to working in a public health or clinical diagnostics lab, or working in the biotechnology industry. I would encourage students thinking of these career paths to seek training in both bench skills and computational skills, because many scientific jobs now involve working with so-called “big data”.

I would also encourage students to take a variety of courses and expose themselves to topics they may not have known much about or had much interest in initially, because you never know where it might lead you. Had I not decided to take that course in bacterial genetics during my undergraduate training, I might not have ended up where I am today.