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Biomedical engineer Ilana Brito named a Pew Scholar

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Jeff Tyson

A Cornell researcher studying the long-term effects of antibiotics on the human microbiome has been recognized with a multiyear grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ilana Lauren Brito, assistant professor and the Mong Family Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in Biomedical Engineering, has been named a 2018 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. One of 22 biomedical researchers named a Pew Scholar this year, Brito will receive a four-year, $300,000 grant.

Ilana Lauren Brito

The Brito Lab will investigate how the use of antibiotics drives the emergence of multidrug-resistant microbes. Recently, a woman in Nevada died from an infection with a pneumonia-causing superbug that was resistant to all antibiotics currently in use. Such resistance arises when bacteria acquire genes from other bacteria that have survived exposure to the drugs – including microbes that inhabit the healthy human intestine.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Brito developed a novel approach for analyzing the genomes of the human microbiome, one bacterium at a time. Her work took her to the South Pacific island of Fiji, where she studied the effect of “mobile genes” – genetic material passed between organisms through horizontal transfer – on the human microbiome.

Now, combining these tools with cutting-edge genomic, computational and microbiological techniques, the lab will determine how antibiotics trigger the movement of resistance genes within an individual microbiome. Brito and her group will assess whether the rate of gene sharing is elevated after antibiotic use and whether this transfer depends on the identity of the drug, the bacterial species involved, or on whether the antibiotic induces DNA damage – a common trigger for genetic rearrangement.

Their findings could allow physicians to evaluate the risks associated with the use of antibiotics in individual patients and slow the expansion of antibiotic resistance worldwide.

Brito arrived at Cornell in 2016 and has since won a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Packard Foundation Fellowship, a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award and a grant from the Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum Project. She was also recently honored by the College of Engineering with a 2017 Research Excellence Award.

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides funding to young investigators of outstanding promise in science relevant to the advancement of human health. The program awards grants to selected academic institutions to support researchers in the first few years of their appointments.