Queen’s chemistry professor fighting a future bacterial pandemic

Avena Ross unlocking how bacteria interact to create new medical frontiers 

Ross and her team received provincial funding through the Early Researcher Award.

Avena Ross is on a mission to understand marine bacteria. Ross, an associate professor for the Chemistry Department at Queen’s, is researching therapeutic applications of marine bacteria. 

“My research group is really interested in understanding how bacteria, tiny sub-visual organisms that live in the ocean, make molecules,” Ross said in an interview with The Journal. 

“We’re interested in those molecules because, it turns out, that a lot of molecules made by bacteria have biological activities that, as humans, we can use as medicine.”

The most common bacterial medicines are antibiotics. Humans rely on antibiotics to treat many common infections such as, ear or skin infections. Antibiotics are a critical application of Ross’ research. 

“There has been a lot of thought recently on the risk of viral infections. The problem with treatment of bacterial infections is this is kind of a silent pandemic in that the drugs we have right now—the bacteria are learning, or have learned, how to get around them,” Ross said. 

Bacteria bypassing antibiotics is called antimicrobial resistance. It’s a serious issue, according to Ross. It’s predicted that by 2050, more people will die of bacterial infections than cancer

“There’s not a lot of financial incentive for companies to develop new antimicrobials. You get sick, you take antibiotics for a week, and you’re cured. It’s not like taking cholesterol medicine that you’re going to need to take forever. So, the academic world has had to step in,” Ross said.

Ross is a recent recipient of the Early Researcher Award. She’s hoping to use the $100,000 in funding to expand her team of research students working to discover new molecules. 

“Right now, there are two undergraduate students in the lab. There are seven graduate students,” Ross said. “[The Early Researcher’s Award] enables me to hire more people and pay them to do research.”  

The bacteria challenges Ross because, like humans, it reacts differently in different environments, making it a difficult subject to research. One of her students encouraged the growth of bacteria that naturally grows on coral by introducing cotton balls from the Dollar Store into the lab. 

“It’s a challenging job finding funding to support research, and I’m incredibly grateful that my team was recognized,” Ross said. “The Early Researcher Award [is] a little about the person who’s applying, it’s a lot about the people that do the work which are the members of the research team.” 

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