Chris Whitfield

Canada Research Chair in Microbial Cell Biology

Tier 1 - 2017-11-01
Renewed: 2015-04-01
University of Guelph
Canadian Institutes of Health Research

519-824-4120 ext. 3478

Research involves

Characterizing the molecular pathways in the assembly of the surfaces of bacteria; identifying within these pathways targets for new therapeutics active against antibiotic-resistant bacteria; determining the ways in which bacterial surface structures are altered during the course of infection.

Research relevance

A new class of therapies could be introduced to deal with the problem of bacteria that are resistant to known antibiotics.

Designing the Next Generation of Wonder Drugs

Among the most disturbing disease trends is the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to our current pharmacopia of antibiotics. Researchers are being asked to address the nature of this resistance so as to develop a new class of drugs that these pathogens cannot evade.

As holder of the Canada Research Chair in Microbial Cell Biology, Chris Whitfield will be examining the behaviour of these organisms at the molecular level by looking at the structure and function of specific proteins and by examining the way in which bacteria regulate genes that are important for infection. Through an analysis that draws from several different disciplines, he will study the structure of enzymes involved in putting together the key components of the surfaces of bacteria and the dynamics of how the bacteria surface changes when it interacts with the body's defenses during infection. Because many of these surface components are essential for the survival of the bacteria or for their ability to cause disease, Dr. Whitfield believes that the enzymes will provide candidate targets for new classes of antimicrobial drugs.

Dr. Whitfield has already worked with the Canadian Bacterial Diseases Network, one of the national Networks of Centres of Excellence, identifying some of the biochemical features of pathogens that would make the best targets for a new class of drugs. He and his colleagues at Guelph have already identified one key enzyme with commercial potential and they will now begin screening for candidate molecules that interfere with the action of the enzyme. Other targets are in the early stages of development. He has also identified some of the cellular machinery used to build large polysaccharides within the bacterial cell and transfer them to the cell surface. The resulting structure is called a capsule, and its role is to protect the bacterium from host defenses. The generic assembly systems are used by a range of different bacterial pathogens and Dr. Whitfield is beginning to answer some important questions about how the assembly of capsules is modulated during different phases of infection by particular types of bacteria.

This program of inquiry complements several of the University of Guelph's strategic research themes, including biotechnology, environmental analysis, food studies, and health and well-being. The Canada Research Chair will enable Dr. Whitfield and his research team to expand the scope of their activities in Guelph and build on existing multidisciplinary and multinational collaborative efforts.