Cross-campus center tackles antimicrobial resistance
By J. Edward Anthony
A new center at Cornell will fight the rise of antibiotic resistance, a global health challenge that threatens to reverse critical advances in modern medicine.
“We’ve had antibiotics since the 1940s. They’ve saved the lives of millions, and continue to do so. The problem is that they are losing their efficacy,” said Dr. Craig Altier, professor of population medicine and diagnostic sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, who co-directs the Cornell Center for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education along with Dr. Kyu Rhee ’91, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Bacteria and other microbes multiply and mutate quickly. Wherever antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents are used, they create an environment that promotes changes in the genetic material of microbes that could help them resist the antimicrobial’s activity.
“Solving that problem requires many disciplines, including medicine, the life sciences and the social sciences,” Altier said. “There’s a need for basic research on how bacteria become resistant, and for developing new drugs. But we also need to develop effective communications aimed at educating the public on the proper use of antibiotics and the broader reach of antimicrobial resistance beyond human health, including agriculture and veterinary medicine.”
Because antibiotic resistance arises in interconnected ecological niches, antimicrobial resistance demands a coordinated approach that will benefit from a range of complementary expertise at Cornell’s Ithaca campus and Weill Cornell Medicine, Rhee said.
“Human medicine, veterinary medicine and agriculture rely on effective antibiotics,” Rhee said. “The concern is that antimicrobial resistance will turn into a whack-a-mole type of problem, where we solve it in one niche but exacerbate it in another, and then it comes back again.”
The center seeks to better understand the nature of antimicrobial resistance in the different environments in which it resides, and how it transmits across niches. “As we do that, we can identify new strategies to contain it across all the niches in which it resides and circulates,” Rhee said.
Registration is open for the center’s inaugural symposium, to be held March 22-23 at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Speakers will include experts from Cornell, Harvard University and Boston University.
The first annual symposium will be funded in part through the Academic Integration program within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Innovation (OVPRI).
“The new center engenders the philosophy of integrated collaborative research that lies at the heart of Cornell’s research endeavors – where we assemble an interdisciplinary team to make fundamental discoveries that can then be translated into clinical outcomes and practical solutions for humanity,” said Paula Cohen, associate vice provost for the life sciences within the OVPRI and professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
A seminar series will extend the work of the symposium throughout the year, and a competitive seed grant program will provide initial support to help promising interdisciplinary research projects win extramural funding.
In addition, the center is partnering with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability to support research on antimicrobial resistance through a supplemental funding program connected to Cornell Atkinson’s 2023 Academic Venture Fund.
“The center builds on previous symposia and discussions by faculty and staff at the Ithaca campus and Weill Cornell Medicine. They saw the need and potential for collaboration on this topic between clinical and research-focused faculty in both human and animal medicine,” said Dr. Lorin Warnick, Ph.D. ’94, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “I am very pleased to see the support for this new center and look forward to an even greater focus on understanding and combating the emergence of antimicrobial resistance.”
Providing seed funding and bringing faculty together to exchange ideas could translate into practical approaches with real impact, Altier said.
“Cornell occupies a unique position here,” he said. “We can bring together this talent and our resources to try to integrate various disciplines, and then attack this huge problem in a way that is integrated and holistic.”
The Office of the Provost and the dean of Weill Cornell Medicine are providing initial funding for the Cornell Center for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education as part of the Radical Collaborations initiative. The center receives additional support from the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and administrative support from the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health.
J. Edward Anthony is a writer for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.