UMass Amherst Biologist Margaret Riley Receives 2021 Mahoney Life Sciences Prize
Her ground-breaking research marks a new paradigm in the prevention and treatment of infectious disease
July 16, 2021
University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist Margaret “Peg” Riley has been awarded the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize for her pathbreaking research into bacteriocin-based antimicrobials, or drugs that are both effective against drug-resistant microbes and result in fewer side effects.
Every 11 seconds someone in the U.S. gets a drug-resistant infection; every four minutes someone dies from that infection. The situation is getting worse: The World Health Organization identifies drug-resistant microbes as one of the top-three global challenges to public health and predicts that by 2050 drug-resistant microbes will become the leading cause of death in the world. “For the first time since the discovery of antibiotics, we face the prospect of infections untreatable by antibiotics,” says Riley. “We have truly entered the post-antibiotic era.”
“It’s a sincere honor to have my research into bacteriocins recognized by the Mahoney Life Science Prize,” says Riley (shown below). “It’s validating to receive recognition of the practical, public importance of finding a solution to the crisis of antibiotic resistance.”
Established in 2018 by UMass Amherst alumni and siblings Richard, Robert and William Mahoney, the prize is an annual competition for scientists in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) at UMass engaged in high-impact life sciences research. It seeks to recognize and honor excellence, advance translatable research that addresses a significant challenge and enhance collaborative relationships between life sciences researchers and industry.
Richard Mahoney, former CEO and chairman of Monsanto, says, “We are proud to support the world-class research being carried out at UMass through the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize. It is critical that we do all we can to strengthen and promote the links between scientific innovation and industrial applications that solve critical problems and improve people’s lives. Dr. Riley’s research is exemplary, providing solutions for a crucial public health need, building bridges between the university and businesses, and involving undergraduates in cutting-edge applied science. The incredible breakthroughs that happen locally at UMass Amherst continue to place UMass at the forefront of research institutions everywhere.”
The Mahoney brothers all received their chemistry degrees from UMass Amherst. They went on to become leaders in their own industries and have served as high-level alumni advisers to the university and as mentors to students.
CNS Dean Tricia Serio says, “We thank the Mahoney family for providing this opportunity to honor Peg Riley for her innovative research on new avenues to treat bacterial infections and for her dedication to including students in her exciting research program.”
Following a close review by an expert panel of life-science-industry scientists and executives, the prize is awarded to one CNS faculty member who is the principal author of peer-reviewed research that meets the broader goals of the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, including advancing connections between academic research and industry. The $10,000 prize is usually featured at an awards ceremony on campus, but this year’s event has been postponed due to COVID-19.
Distinctive Aspects of Riley’s Research
Part of the problem with traditional antibiotics is that they are broad-spectrum. Antibiotics wipe out the body’s entire microbiome, even the good bacteria that help us stay healthy, as anyone knows who has ever taken a course of antibiotics for an ear infection and wound up with stomach discomfort and diarrhea. Any of the body’s bacteria that survive the onslaught may evolve drug resistance. Riley’s innovative research focuses instead on the use of bacteriocins as the basis of antimicrobial drugs. Each specific bacteriocin targets a single group of pathogens—like the ones causing your ear infection—leaving the bacteria in your gut alone and limiting the possibility of drug resistance. And because bacteriocins narrowly target specific bacteria, they are far less toxic than conventional antibiotics, causing fewer side effects.
Riley recently published her research on bacteriocins in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents. In it, Riley focused on urinary tract infections, especially those associated with the insertion of a catheter. Nearly half a million such infections are reported every year, which is caused by the intrusion of certain strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacterium that lives normally in our intestines, but which can cause trouble when it finds its way to other parts of the human body. The strains of E. coli that causes urinary tract infections are also frequently resistant to a range of antibiotics.
To combat drug-resistant E. coli, Riley used a family of bacteriocins called colicins, which are produced by E. coli itself, and which target E. coli specifically. Riley found that multi-drug cocktails containing colicins are 20 percent more effective at treating urinary tract infections than standard antimicrobial treatments, and inflict far less collateral damage on other, beneficial bacteria. Furthermore, the colicins were effective at a far lower dose.
Riley is also an innovative teacher. Indeed, her lab is populated exclusively with undergrads, who, she says, “have proven to be intellectual risk-takers and who frequently wish to apply their education to finding solutions to practical problems.” Riley’s enthusiasm has proven inspiring—former students have used their experience in her lab to launch four different start-up companies.
Monica Tan, vice president of product and design at Science Exchange, one of the award’s judges, and a member of the UMass Class of 1998, says that one of the applications of Riley’s research, a bacteriocin-infused catheter lubricant, “is fascinating and extremely elegant in its execution. Using a lubricant conforms with healthcare providers’ current processes and procedures, which expedites the lubricant’s entry into the market. The quick applicability of the solution in a practical setting makes this paper a perfect example of how academic research can bridge the gap between research and industry.”
The panel of expert outside reviewers included Vic Myer, president and CSO at Chroma Medicine; Richard Gregory (’86), scientific advisor at Epitoire; Dennis Guberski (’75, ’83), founder of Mucosal Vaccine Technologies LLC; Stefan Baier (’03), food science lead at Motif Ingredients; David Mazzo (’81, ’84), chief executive officer and director of Caladrius Biosciences; Chuck Sherwood (’72, ’77), founder and retired president of Anika Therapeutics; Monica Tan (’98), vice president of product and design at Science Exchange; Leslie Dierauf (’70), retired northwest regional director of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Diane Stengle (’72, 80), associate professor of chemistry at Holyoke Community College.