A Biologist Finds Inspiration—and a New Protein—at Rainbow Bluff

December 2016
Heath Farris
Heath Farris

As we all know, inspiration can strike anywhere. For MITRE's Heath Farris, a childhood spent outdoors motivated him to make discoveries that hold the promise of wiping out deadly bacteria.

Growing up in northern Alabama, Farris spent hours exploring the woods. He was particularly drawn to the deep gorges and bluffs that had been carved out by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. These spots are shaded and cool year-round, home to clear streams and rich organic soil that supports flora typically found much farther north. One of his haunts, called Rainbow Bluff, would prove especially inspirational.

"Even as a kid, I recognized that these were very special places," he says. "The uniqueness of the environment in contrast to the surrounding woodlands helped spark my early interest in biology."

Farris suspected that all sorts of treasures lurked in these depths. And he was right. As an undergraduate and then graduate student studying biology at the University of Alabama, he returned to Rainbow Bluff many times to search for novel sources of new antimicrobials—harvesting more than 1,000 bacteria from the soil.

Within the genomes of some previously uncharacterized bacteria, he discovered a new suite of anti-microbial enzymes—including Mitrecin A and B, which he named for MITRE.

For Use in Water Decontamination, Healthcare, Food and Crop Protection

Mitrecin A (the most developed of the suite) kills pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli, that make people sick or damage crops. It works by attacking the bonds in the cell wall of the target pathogen, breaking apart the pathogen's structure, and ultimately killing it. In nature, Mitrecin attacks and kills nearby bacteria in this way to prevent competition for food.

This targeted removal of pathogens could have many benefits for our sponsors in the homeland security, defense, and healthcare domains, as well as the general public.

"Mitrecin A could be used to decontaminate drinking water, and it could be incorporated into catheters and other medical devices that are left in the patient to prevent infection," Farris says. "You could put it into a throat gargle to kill pathogens or on plastic food covering to prevent contamination."

Farris laid out the groundwork for this project while at university, later advancing it during two years as a post-doctoral consultant at MITRE, and then as a senior scientist joining the company in 2009. During this time, he didn't just discover a new family of enzymes—he also successfully leveraged a new technique for isolating and characterizing other potentially helpful protein antimicrobials found in soil. The technique combines cutting-edge DNA sequencing technologies and bioinformatics tools.

Farris described this sophisticated multi-stage process in an article in Letters in Applied Microbiology in 2014 that was cited as an example of an innovative method for new antimicrobial discovery by Future Medicinal Chemistry. He also wrote about his discovery and characterization of S. scopuliridis for the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology in 2011.

Different Skills and Experiences Bring Something Special

Farris received a patent for Mitrecin A in 2015. The Mitrecin suite of antimicrobial proteins, as well as Farris's innovative techniques for characterizing them, are now in the hands of MITRE's Technology Transfer Office (TTO), which is introducing them to various commercial sectors, such as agriculture and food processing. In August 2016, R&D Magazine named Mitrecin A as a finalist in its prestigious R&D 100 Awards.

"The fact that Heath found these enzymes in the soil is so novel—and it's an example of the way that MITRE looks to people with different skill sets and experiences to bring something special to the company," says Debi Davis, a senior licensing associate in MITRE's TTO. "We look for solutions anywhere and everywhere—and that's just what Heath did when he went to that bluff in Alabama."

Farris is based at MITRE's McLean campus, where he conducts projects in MITRE's biotechnology laboratory. In spring 2016, he produced a video for the Journal of Visualized Experiments, describing his technique for detecting new antimicrobial activities. He's looking forward to seeing his discovery reach the marketplace where it can do some good.

"Part of being an effective scientist is the dissemination of newly unearthed information—no pun intended," he says. "It's important to me to do that, and I'm happy that it's important to MITRE as well."

—by Twig Mowatt

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