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Dwayne Roach, Ph.D., the Conrad Prebys Chair in Virology Dwayne Roach, Ph.D., the Conrad Prebys Chair in Virology

New Frontiers in Personalized Medicine

Dwayne Roach's research in the field strengthens the capacity of SDSU's Viral Information Institute.
By SDSU News Team

With San Diego State University President Adela de la Torre driving major institutional initiatives in support of student, faculty and staff development, and with ambitious plans for future growth, SDSU opens 2019 with increased momentum toward an expanded community impact.

"Directions: SDSU in 2019" is a series highlighting top stories related to university research, student success and innovative programs and provides a forward-looking lens into the work of students, faculty and staff.

Dwayne Roach, Ph.D., joined SDSU in September 2018 as the Conrad Prebys Chair in Virology in the College of Science’s Viral Information Institute (VII). Virology is the study of viruses, the most diverse and yet uncharacterized life forms on the planet.

Q. How did you become interested in this particular field of microbiology?

Surprisingly, school was never that appealing to me. But, after working for a few years in automotive manufacturing, I realized I needed a different career. It was my grandmother who encouraged me to go to university, and this is how I became the first in my family to go to college. Although I had the intent to become a business major, after my taking a biology class, I was hooked on microbiology. My interest in research arose when  I joined the lab of Alan Castle at Brock University for my bachelor’s senior honors thesis. He was studying the use of phages (viruses that infect bacteria) as biological control agents for a disease called fire blight, which afflicts apple and pear trees. After graduation, Dr. Castle encouraged me apply to the Ph.D. program and join the lab of Antonet Svircev, our collaborator on the fire blight project. My Ph.D. thesis solidified my love for research and for phages.  

Q. Where did you go from there?

My first postdoc position was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the lab of David Donovan. There, I used synthetic biology to make designer phage enzymes that had antibacterial properties to control bacterial contamination in fuel ethanol fermentations. As a side project, I investigated if a similar approach could be used to treat mastitis in dairy cows. I was able to modify the enzyme in such a way that it entered mammary gland cells to target intracellular bacterial infection. Just before joining SDSU, I worked at Institut Pasteur in Paris in the lab of Laurent Debarbieux developing phage therapy to control multidrug resistant infections in humans. As a phage biologist, it was an honor to work at the same institute where 100 years earlier phages were discovered by fellow Canadian microbiologist, Felix d’Hérelle. 

Q. How does phage therapy work?

Phages need to infect bacteria to replicate. After replication, the bacterial cell bursts, releasing several hundred viral progeny. So far, phage therapy has not been approved for use in clinics in the United States. However, clinicians (medical doctors) can use it as a compassionate therapy when a patient’s infection is unresponsive to traditional antibiotic therapy. The clinicians will first isolate and identify the bacterial strain before sending it to a phage research lab like those at SDSU. There scientists will identify phages that can kill the strain as well as make enough purified phages to be administered to the patient. This is the essence of personalized medicine.

What attracted you to SDSU?

The opportunity to join the Viral Information Institute and its world-renowned faculty was a big factor in my decision. The institute has a strong community of scientists from diverse fields that have been at the forefront of phage research on human and ecosystem health.

You can read more about SDSU’s Viral Information Institute in the spring issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University, due out in March.