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Interview: CSI on nanoscale: ‘The body temperature tells me when the virus killed the bacteria’

This is an interview with a PhD student of the Disease Intervention Strategies projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.

Interview with Michèle Molendijk, PhD student of the BRICK study – Bacteriophage Research on Immune Response, Clinical Use and Knowledge on Virome Changes project at Erasmus MC.

In the last decade, bacteria-killing viruses have gained popularity as alternatives for antibiotics. Michèle Molendijk investigates the safety and efficiency of these bacteria killers as drugs.

‘Antibiotic resistance is threatening global health. I am therefore investigating an alternative that scientists discovered a century ago: bacteria-killing viruses called bacteriophages, or phages. Because of the simplicity of antibiotics, phages have fallen into obscurity in the western world and little scientific research has been done on them.

During my project, I am investigating how our immune system responds to phages, which phages are safe to use, and which are effective killers. For the latter, I add phages to a petri dish of bacteria. Like humans, bacteria produce a kind of body heat which drops when they die. Using a special heat detector, I measure the bacteria’s ‘body temperature’, which tells me how efficiently the phage kills bacteria. They do not all kill in the same way. Some do right away, others build in some of their DNA that works like a time bomb. We want to avoid this type of DNA transfer in medicine, so I am studying the DNA of different phages and discarding those with a time bomb.

It is extraordinary how these two tiny life forms have such a complex relationship. During my PhD, I am not only learning about their relationship, but also about relationships and collaborations between different scientific disciplines. My two supervisors work in different fields and it feels like I am the bridge connecting them. These interdisciplinary collaborations are valuable and this is something I like about NCOH.’

PhD project: Phage therapy for S. aureus and P. aeruginosa infections.