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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Researcher's Work Aims to Eradicate Childhood Ear Infections

By Betsy Hnath

Dayle Daines is all ears when she gets a question. Particularly if it's about her research.

Since joining the faculty in 2012, the Old Dominion University associate professor in biological sciences has been investigating Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that, despite its name, doesn't cause the flu, but can cause pneumonia, bronchitis and otitis media — better known as a middle ear infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday, and one out of five visits to the doctor in the United States are due to an ear infection or ear pain, costing over $4 billion per year (not counting lost wages of the caregiver who must stay home with the child).

Children who get recurrent ear infections despite antibiotic treatment risk such long-term consequences as surgical placement of tubes in their eardrums (tympanostomy tubes), hearing loss and language development delays.

In collaboration with the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Daines' current research, which runs through 2018, received funding of about $1 million, including an Administrative Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one of the National Institutes of Health. By working with the scientists at NCATS, Daines gained access to their small-molecule library and state-of-the-art technology.

Daines and her team are aiming to develop a drug that would block the effect of a toxin that helps keep some of the Haemophilus influenzae dormant during an ear infection. After a round of antibiotics has stopped working, the hidden disease then reveals itself.

"This is significant because our antibiotics are targeted against necessary functions of bacteria such as growth and replication, so when these functions are not active, the bacteria are not killed by the drug that normally would do so," Daines said.

Ironically, Daines' research suggests that growing more Haemophilus influenzae initially may actually aid standard antibiotic therapies in wiping out the bacteria all at once, and lowering the risk of recurrence.

"In order to make these bacteria susceptible to the antibiotics again, we are targeting this pathway by discovering novel small molecule compounds that inhibit the activity of the toxin."

Robotic arms help screen the large volumes of compounds (over 160,000) available at NCATS for potential "hits" or inhibitors of the toxin's activity, accomplishing in minutes what might take weeks for humans to complete.

Close to 200 have been discovered and sent to Daines and her team at ODU for more testing to further narrow the field of contenders.

"The broader impact of this project is that since this pathway is found in most bacterial pathogens, we hope our unique drug effective against Haemophilus influenzae will also block this pathway in microorganisms that cause other disease."