Dr. Lawrence Reitzer is a Professor in the department of Biological Sciences of the School of Natural Sciences & Mathematics at the University of Texas at Dallas. In collaboration with Dr. Philippe Zimmern of the urology department at the University of Texas Southwestern, Dr. Reitzer’s current research aims to understand and characterize the two major factors that promote urinary tract infections (UTIs) with long-term goals to identify interventions to reduce the frequency of UTIs. The project recently received a $250,000 Collaborative Biomedical Research Award (CoBRA) seed grant from the Office of Research. Dr. Reitzer reflects on defining moments in his career as well as what sparked his initial interest in science.
Describe your research for a lay audience.
The basic topic of my research is in collaboration with the urologist at UT Southwestern; we’re trying to understand the basis for urinary tract infections. Dr. Philippe Zimmern who’s in the urology department has a big clinical practice—he’s an academic clinician, but he’s in big clinical practice and sees a lot of patients. He sought collaborators in the basic sciences and there’s several at UT Dallas. I was suggested to him as someone who’s interested in metabolism and we started discussing what projects I could be interested in and what he was interested in.
The process of a urinary tract infection, which is one of the most common in humans, affects mostly women. A majority of women will acquire such an infection in their lifetime, and for a good fraction of these women, the infection will recur and become antibody resistant. This is a large clinical problem. Older women and diabetics tend to get more of these infections, so his clinic sees a lot of these women.
Part of the mechanism of how the bacteria is infectious is that they bind to the epithelial layer of the bladder. We’re studying possible mechanisms by which this occurs and how it can be prevented. I have interest in metabolism and we’ve started looking at, not only the host of the epithelial, but also the growth properties of bacteria in urine. Bacteria grows extremely rapidly in urine and we’re trying to understand how the bacteria do this. The most common strain of bacteria that causes urinary tract infections is Escherichia coli which is notorious for causing food poisoning and other things, but there are strains that cause urinary tract infections. So, we’re trying to understand the properties of these bacteria that would allow them to become infectious agents. What are they growing on in urine? Why are they growing so rapidly?
Can you share a turning point or defining moment in your research?
I guess that can be broken down into two things. One is in my research in general and the defining point in this particular line of research. In my own career, it was doing undergraduate research, starting to ask questions, and realizing that those questions could be answered with experiments. So, my research was a simple problem in yeast metabolism.
In terms of [the urinary tract infection] research it was when Dr. Zimmern contacted me and we started this collaboration that has now been going on for two years.
How do you see your research making an impact in the future?
I’ll answer that in two parts:
One part is that we’re finding variations in the bacterial strains that cause infections and we think that’s a function of the specific patients. So, some patients will have good defense mechanisms and the bacteria infects one route. With other patients, they may have weaker defense mechanisms the bacterial strains can infect by a different route. So, we’re prizing apart the differences between these bacterial species and we think we might be able to work out sub types of bacteria that cause infections. The sub-types may have different metabolisms and if that’s the case, then we might be able to develop anti-metabolites or other therapeutic agents that affect these sub-types of bacteria.
So [with the second part], the ultimate goal may be to develop what’s called a personalized medicine which is based on sub-typing of either the environment or the bacteria of the infecting agent and seeing if we can have personalized medicine based on the properties of the host or the bacteria. So that’s where we’re hoping to go in the future; to understand these categories and to develop therapies that are useful against specific bacterial strains. And to, of course, analyze that very rapidly—that’s the ultimate goal.
How did you become interested in science and research?
My interest in science started with an interest in astronomy. I thought it was interesting how people figured out things in the universe. Then I went to college and I went into a very technical major in astronomy and physics. That interest changed in college when I started doing some lab work and especially research in a biology lab. I took a biochemistry course; my first course in biology. Not usually someone’s first course in biology; and I liked biochemistry a lot. Then, I did some research in it and I was able to think metabolically. Think: How does one do experiments? What’s the function of a biochemical pathway? So, doing this and getting results as an undergraduate doing research, I took that into graduate school and I’ve been doing that ever since.
Interest in science was more grade school, and trying to understand the universe, it’s complexities and the interest in research, the ability to do experiments and get answer from “why is it this way?” and then do experiments to test that. Finding out what life what like in a research lab was my ‘how you get hooked into research’ and why in college we want to get people into labs because it is an entirely different experience than taking lab courses classes in college. The research experience is just so different and so much more fun.