$1M Award For Salk Scientist Janelle Ayres, Who Befriends Our Microbial Enemies

By Bradley J. Fikes
The San Diego Union-Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) By focusing on “microbes as medicine,” scientist Janelle Ayres suggests that entirely new classes of therapies might be developed to help patients tolerate infections.


Janelle Ayres, a rising star at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, has collected her second honor in a month, one which brings $1 million to fund her microbial research.

The grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation will allow Ayres to study alternative ways to cope with dangerous bacterial and viral infections. These include sepsis and influenza. Both are badly in need of better therapies.

Ayres knows this personally, her father died of sepsis.

Last month, Ayres was awarded the Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists, in honor of her work in understanding human-bacterial interactions. The award is given to scientists 42 and under by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. It included $250,000 to fund her research.

Ayres, who is in her late 30s, is an associate professor at Salk’s NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis. She studies how people retain health during infections.

Her angle is unconventional: Instead of viewing people and infectious bacteria as mortal enemies, Ayres looks for evidence of cooperation, or at least tolerating each other. This evidence can lead to new therapies to help people through infections.

In January 2017, Ayres and colleague Sheila Rao led a study demonstrating that some Salmonella bacteria, a common cause of food poisoning, actually promote appetite in their hosts.

These strains are acting for their own benefit, the study found. People who keep eating and remain active are better at spreading the bacteria than those who feel ill and isolate themselves. So strains of Salmonella that are less virulent are actually more infectious.

Understanding how Salmonella accomplishes this trick could lead to new therapies to help those whose appetites are suppressed for other reasons, such as chemotherapy.

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