Oct. 2, 2014
By Dr. Rachel Tompa
Microbiologist Dr. Nina Salama has long been fascinated by bacteria, but as a young researcher looking to branch out from basic biochemistry to study the bugs that make us sick, she never dreamed she’d one day play a major role in cancer research.
Then, at the start of her postdoctoral fellowship, she learned about a study that strongly linked the stomach bacteria Helicobacter pylori with gastric cancer, the second leading cancer killer worldwide.
“That was mind-boggling, that bacteria could cause cancer,” Salama said. “That captivated me and I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to study H. pylori.’”
Salama and her team in Fred Hutch's Human Biology Division are now leaders in the field studying that bug: how it colonizes the stomach, and how it triggers the chronic inflammation that can lead to gastric ulcers and, for some, stomach cancer. She is fascinated both by this pathogen’s unusual ability to survive in the stomach and why the bacterium triggers cancer in only a relatively small percentage of those infected.
She’s discovered that H. pylori’s unique corkscrew shape allows the bug to burrow into the stomach lining and survive that organ’s acidic environment. Her team found a set of four key proteins responsible for the bug’s twisty form; H. pylori that's missing any of those proteins are rod- or crescent-shaped and cannot set up shop in the stomach. These proteins could therefore be possible drug targets to prevent or treat infection, Salama said.
Salama is also studying how other bugs in our body interact with H. pylori and whether that bacterial interplay could push an infected person toward developing gastric cancer.
Working with Fred Hutch basic scientist Dr. Gerry Smith, Salama also found that H. pylori needs to be able to repair its own damaged DNA to survive in the stomach. Her research team then found several small molecules that block that repair, which could make them excellent candidates as antibiotics. New drugs are urgently needed since antibiotic-resistant strains of H. pylori are common, and current treatments that are effective are difficult to administer in resource-poor regions, where infections are on the rise.
Salama said collaboration and a risk-taking culture have propelled her work at the Hutch. "Isolation really stifles creativity," she said. "But working together to blend creative approaches is encouraged here. I love that we're constantly getting reseeded with new ideas."
Taking chances and exploring unexpected research paths are the essence of good science, Salama said. "You have an idea to bring things together one way, but you don't know where things are going to go. Just starting the process is critical — if you never start, you'll never learn."
Dr. Rachel Tompa, a staff writer at Fred Hutch, joined the Hutch in 2009 as an editor working with infectious disease researchers and has since written about topics ranging from nanotechnology to global health. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco, and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Reach her at email@example.com.