From farmgirl to PharmD

By Lauren Davis
Wednesday, 12 June, 2019

From farmgirl to PharmD

Ahead of her much-anticipated appearance at ASM 2019, we spoke to Dr Marnie L Peterson* about how she went from being an all-American farmgirl to a respected expert on infectious diseases.

Lab+Life Scientist: How did you come to be interested in science, and to specialise in the areas of antibiotic resistance and experimental therapeutics?

Dr Marnie Peterson: I have been interested in science since a very young age. I grew up in a rural setting on a farm, so I was immersed in nature and biology. My dad had studied animal science at university and his old biology texts and microscope slides were in a box. I asked for a microscope for Christmas and I spent the next weeks making observations from his bio slides. My interest continued and I won first prize at our middle school science fair with a project that demonstrated the effectiveness of penicillin against mouth flora. My partner and I made our own agar plates, grew the organisms in a shoebox behind our wood stove and then imaged the plates with a microscope.

I had aptitude in science and math and ended up attending university to focus on pharmacy and thus began my interest in therapeutics. While I was attending university for my Doctor of Pharmacy degree, I completed an abroad exchange program with a university in Thailand. There we were exposed to village medicine doctors and large government hospitals. We learned about the increasing antibiotic resistance in problematic infectious diseases such as TB, gastrointestinal diseases and HIV. I began to understand the global problems associated with infectious diseases and antibiotics.

I decided to focus on infectious diseases post-graduation and completed clinical residency and research fellowship training in antibiotic pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics. I learned the importance of appropriate antibiotic dosing and antibiotic combinations to prevent the development of resistance. I continued with graduate studies at the University of Birmingham, UK, studying with an expert in antibiotic resistance mechanisms, Dr Laura Piddock.

Finally, a postdoctoral fellowship in microbial pathogenesis increased my knowledge in host response to infection and interest in the development of host targeted therapeutics to prevent infectious diseases. With all these experiences and training, I established my own research laboratory at the University of Minnesota focused on the development of therapeutics to treat infectious diseases.

LLS: You have over 20 years of experience developing new therapeutics. What have been some of your career highlights over this time?

MP: The highlights are multifaceted and they include working on teams with esteemed researchers and being mentored by world experts in infectious diseases. They also include mentoring talented graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the laboratory.

Research highlights include working on the development of glycerol monolaurate (GML) as a vaginal microbicide gel. This research determined the ability of GML to prevent SIV transmission in an animal model and our findings were published in the journal Nature.

The research team continued to focus on treating or preventing female reproductive tract infections with the GML vaginal gel. We designed the first clinical pilot studies in women. This technology led to the creation of a clinical-stage biotechnology start-up, Hennepin Life Sciences. I eventually left my tenured university position to join the company as the VP of Drug and Clinical Development.

Another highlight that occurred during my academic career was the formation of a highly productive industrial research partnership with 3M. Our work led to the commercialisation of many products currently on the market. We also received a research award from the Department of Defense to work collaboratively on a wound dressing for wounded combat soldiers.

LLS: Have you felt your research has been stifled over the years by the rise of antibiotic resistance, or any other challenges that have arisen?

MP: As an academic your research is driven by your ability to obtain funding. When I started my career, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health were extremely low — 5 to 15%. Antibiotic resistance had not yet reached the global scale it is now. Funding for microbial pathogenesis was also difficult to obtain and a focus on translational sciences was just beginning. Things have changed and there are now grant programs specifically for the development of antibiotics to target antibiotic-resistant organisms. Also, antimicrobials are more likely to be discovered due to early preclinical work developed at universities or small biotech start-ups, with funding coming from private investors and government programs.

LLS: What motivated you to found your company, Extherid Biosciences, and what sort of work does the company do?

MP: As my laboratory was conducting research at the university, I noticed that it was difficult to answer questions regarding the potential clinical performance of an antimicrobial technology with current in vitro assays. Because these assays aren’t very predictive, we then move into live animals studies in an unrefined way. This is costly and utilises a lot of animals in models that are not always predictive.

To bridge this gap, we created the methods for infected tissue models derived from ex vivo porcine or human tissue. We studied the microbe and host responsiveness using the models and also created biofilm models using these tissue models. Our commercial and academic research partners also understood the benefit of these models in their technology development.

So, when I decided to leave the university I launched Extherid to focus on creating better research methods and models for preclinical development that accelerate the process, predict clinical performance, reduce live animal research and decrease costs. We are a specialty contract research organisation that focuses currently on the preclinical development of antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory technologies using innovative non-live animal and human derived tissue models and techniques.

LLS: You’ll be speaking at ASM 2019 about the One Health approach to antimicrobial stewardship. What does this approach involve, and why is it so important?

MP: The One Health approach to antimicrobial stewardship is the only way that we can meaningfully reduce the increase and spread of antibiotic resistance. A One Health approach involves human health, animal health and environmental health and all of their stakeholders. This is global effort that involves numerous organisations, governments, clinicians, veterinarians, scientists, economists, policymakers and citizens. (I am sure I have forgotten a few.) The awareness is increasing through media outlets, conferences and government initiatives and policies. However, the resources are not sufficient to create change especially in low- to middle-income countries. We need to keep engaging and forming networks to educate and work together.

LLS: You’ll also be presenting the Snowden Oration at the conference. What will that presentation cover?

MP: The presentation will describe new antimicrobial strategies in development to treat or prevent infectious diseases (specifically those that can reduce antibiotic resistance). I will also be describing new approaches to develop antimicrobials, including 3D tissue models that can mirror host conditions and can be used to characterise agents that exhibit antimicrobial activities by suppressing pathogenesis, directly killing the organism, or by inhibiting host targets to prevent infectious diseases.

LLS: If you could impart one key bit of advice as to how we can combat antibiotic resistance, what would it be?

MP: This is a good question. I think reducing antibiotic consumption overall and increasing appropriate prescribing.

*Dr Marnie L Peterson is an expert in antibiotic resistance, antimicrobial stewardship, experimental therapeutics and microbial pathogenesis with over 20 years of experience in the development of new therapeutics for infectious diseases. She will be speaking on the first two days of ASM 2019, to be held from 30 June–3 July at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Top image credit: ©

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