When she was in training to become an infectious disease physician, Jennie H. Kwon, DO, MSCI, cared for patients with multidrug-resistant infections that were so bad, physicians didn’t have antibiotics left to treat them.
The experience of losing patients to such infections stuck with Dr. Kwon. She developed a deep interest in researching antibiotics and the human microbiome; her research led to her recently receiving a grant for roughly $450,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research to provide new information on what happens to a healthy person’s microbiome when he or she is given antibiotics.
Dr. Kwon’s significant contributions as an emerging public health leader have led to her being named the 2016 National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Anniversary Fellow in Osteopathic Medicine. The fellowship is supported by the AOA, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, and the American Osteopathic Foundation and will serve to foster Dr. Kwon’s growth as a health care leader.
Dr. Kwon is also an infectious disease faculty member at Washington University School of Medicine and an epidemiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Following is an edited Q&A.
What does it mean to you to be the 2016 NAM Osteopathic Medicine Fellow?
As a NAM fellow, I will be participating in a two-year intensive health policy training program, which is an absolute honor. I’ll be working with policy experts and clinicians to help provide evidence-based guidance to policymakers, health care leaders and the public. I will also be collaborating with subject matter experts, legislators, government officials, scientists, and health professionals on initiatives to improve public health.
How will your CDC-funded research combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistance?
My research team will use the CDC funding to look at what happens when we give antibiotics to a healthy patient. We will document how much the drug disrupts bacterial communities in our body, including our skin, mouth, gut, and urine. It sounds like a simple concept, but the results of the study will provide important information concerning the impact of antibiotics on the human microbiome.
We will first look at the microbiomes of healthy people before giving them antibiotics, then give them antibiotics typically used for pneumonia in order to see how much the antibiotics change a person’s microbiome. Participants will be tracked for a six-month period to see how long a disruption to their microbiome lasts and to see how long it takes until a person’s baseline normal flora comes back, if it comes back at all.
We will utilize a combination of culture-based interrogations and metagenomics techniques to examine bacteria from stool samples. This can tell us about the types of bacteria within the microbiome as well as the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria genes present. We are concerned that by taking antibiotics, we may be promoting resistant organisms, and we’re trying to look at that down to the bacterial gene level.
I’m privileged to be able to study important questions such as the effect of antibiotics on the microbiome and to have a framework, system, and funding to try to answer these questions in the form of potentially impactful studies.
Why is antibiotic resistance research important?
According to the CDC, 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. This overuse can cause unprecedented changes to our bacterial communities. Antibiotic resistance is increasing, and our antibiotic choices are growing increasingly limited. Therefore, we have to think of novel ways to prevent people from getting drug-resistant infections in the first place, and we have to find innovative ways to treat patients who have drug-resistant infections. That’s my goal.