(Posted April 29, 2024)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. – Juniata College has been awarded a $551,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) SuRE Research Awards (R16) to fund research on Clostridioides difficile infection, a costly and difficult-to-treat condition commonly known as C. diff, to be led by Regina Lamendella, who is Juniata College’s George ’75 and Cynthia ’76 Valko professor of biological sciences.   

“C. diff infections kill more than 100,000 Americans each year. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has prioritized it as an urgent threat to health worldwide,” Lamendella said. “C. diff is the most common nosocomial (healthcare-associated) infection, and the biggest risk factor is antibiotic exposure.”  

The NIH SuRE Research Awards (R16) are designed to aid research and capacity building at smaller institutions where at least 25% of students are Pell-eligible. This grant will fund undergraduate research over four years. 

“We are grateful to the NIH for the support they are providing so that our students can engage in the kind of scholarly inquiry that can improve human health and quality of life for others,” said Acting President and Provost Lauren Bowen. “We are proud of the ways in which our faculty partner with our students to provide them with these kinds of opportunities that truly distinguish a Juniata education. Dr. Lamendella, one of our most prolific researchers, has the experience, expertise, and curiosity to ensure the success of this project.”  

When antibiotics are used for a patient’s treatment, both the good and bad bacteria within the gut microbiome are killed. With C. diff, the infection multiplies unchecked and releases toxins that cause catastrophic gastrointestinal symptoms. The infection is treatment-resistant with currently available antibiotics. Relapse is common, with 15-50% of those treated experiencing a recurrence of the C. diff infection. In a hospital or long-term care facility, C. diff can spread quickly.  

“A major goal of this grant is to improve these treatment failures and relapses. While many researchers pay attention to the bacteria in the gut microbiome, fungal organisms live there, too. Fungi are very understudied in the gut biome,” said Lamendella. “Several years ago, my lab discovered that individuals who were positive for C. diff have more fungal organisms than those who don’t have C. diff. We believe the fungi may be involved in the recurrence of the disease.”  

Juniata College professors routinely engage students in every aspect of their research, no matter the project’s size or complexity. With undergraduate research experiences at Juniata College, students work in groups, receive feedback, and have their results published—all while finding solutions to real-world problems. This research approach benefits the student and faculty mentor, with the collaborative partnership offering a distinct advantage to students pursuing graduate programs.   

“What’s most exciting is that the original discovery was made by the undergraduates in my lab, and we are continuing the work they’ve pioneered,” Lamendella said. “It is powerful to see the clinical implications of this research, which might lead to better treatment strategies and improved outcomes. The high impact practice that research offers fosters a holistic understanding of complex medical systems and contributes to their development as future scientists.”  

Research for this project has begun and Lamendella will be mentoring two undergraduate and one graduate student this summer.  

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.