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Young chemist wins hefty corporate award

August 23, 2006 By Paroma Basu

A scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been awarded a prestigious “Focused Giving Grant” by Johnson & Johnson, the internationally recognized manufacturer of pharmaceutical and heath care products.

Helen Blackwell, an assistant professor of chemistry, will receive $240,000 during three years.

The Johnson & Johnson award is unusual in that it does not carry strict stipulations outlining how grant-winners can or should spend award money. That means Blackwell will be free to explore new research questions in an unfettered way.

“Getting this award feels really great,” says Blackwell. “Because this is essentially unrestricted money, the grant will allow my lab to buy supplies and equipment for preliminary experiments that are high risk, meaning that while they may not necessarily work out at the outset, they are still extremely important to do.”

Blackwell has won steady acclaim in recent years for her attempts to understand and control the formation of “biofilms,” goo-like bacterial “mobs” that form throughout nature. Biofilms form the green slime on rocks, for example, or the plaque on human teeth. Unfortunately, they also cause most of the tenacious, and sometimes fatal, hospital infections that are becoming increasingly frequent every year.

Oddly, biofilms tend to veto normal characteristics of bacterial cells in favor of new, “super-organism” behaviors. Scientists now know that such bacterial mob mentality occurs because bacterial cells can sense each other through a chemical phenomenon known as “quorum sensing.”

Blackwell and her team are working to manipulate quorum sensing in plant and animal bacteria, by designing compounds that can either shut down or turn up bacterial “chatter.” The scientists have so far identified at least three compounds that block bacterial communication in the Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium that commonly infects patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, AIDS and severe burns.

The Johnson & Johnson award will enable Blackwell to test such laboratory compounds directly within living systems, and tease apart bacterial relationships in both harmful and beneficial bacterial colonies that sometimes comprise multiple bacterial species. Ultimately, the work should help to understand the impact of quorum sensing on animals and plants that bacteria invade, Blackwell says.

The Focused Funding Program is a global initiative to support innovative biomedical research that could one day prove beneficial to the interests of Johnson & Johnson. But the company — which has since 1980 awarded more than $50 million in grants — lays no proprietary claim on research carried out through a Focused Funding Grant.

Johnson & Johnson executives will officially announce Blackwell’s award during a ceremony at the UW–Madison University Club on Thursday, Aug. 24.