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Rachel Bleich
Rachel Bleich won a 2017 Horizon Award from the UNC Graduate School for her work with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Photo by Kristin Prelipp.

Rachel Bleich, a graduate student in the pharmaceutical sciences at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, has received a 2017 Horizon Award from the UNC Graduate School for her research into antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The Graduate School’s annual Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Awards recognize graduate students for contributions they are making to our state. The longstanding GEAB Impact Award recognizes discoveries with a direct impact on our state in the present time. New for 2017, the Horizon Award recognizes discoveries with future potential to benefit North Carolina and beyond.

Bleich works in the lab of her adviser, Assistant Professor Albert Bowers, Ph.D., in the School’s Division of Chemical Biology and Medicinal Chemistry.

“In every instance, when an experiment has been needed, she has found someone to teach her the technique and developed her skill to the point where she acquires fantastic data,” Bowers said. “She has no fear with respect to her scientific research.”

The rising incidence of antibiotic resistance has become one of the world’s foremost health crises. North Carolina has seen a dramatic increase in hospitalizations due to one pathogenic microbe, clostridium difficile, from 3,076 in 2000 to 10,271 in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Natural products, which have developed intricate mechanisms for survival, may provide an innovative avenue for antibiotic creation. Bleich has focused on discovering and testing promising natural compounds.

Advances in genome sequencing have greatly increased knowledge about bacteria’s untapped potential in fighting infection. Bleich and her research team scoured bacterial genomes to find genes for possible new antibiotics. She collaborated with a local biotech company and with the lab of UNC Assistant Professor Elizabeth Shank, Ph.D. Through this collaboration, Bleich identified genes for thousands of previously undiscovered compounds.

Bleich tested one class of natural product antibiotics, the thiopeptides, for its effect on biofilms. Bacteria form biofilms to ward off antibiotic attack; biofilm formation is associated with up to 80 percent of bacterial infections. The thiopeptides she tested caused a C. difficile model organism to produce biofilm faster, thus making it potentially less effective as an antibiotic—but disclosing an inherent activity of the thiopeptides. In the race to find new antibiotics, Bleich has collaborated effectively to identify compounds that merit investigation and test their biological activity at an early stage to determine long-term effectiveness.

Yuhang Jiang, Ph.D., a December 2016 graduate of the Division of Molecular Pharmaceutics and Pharmacoengineering, also received a 2017 Horizon Award for his research into a treatment to repair the damage to the brain caused by stroke.

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