Student scientists make breakthroughs in culturing, discovering new bacteria

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Ground-breaking discoveries are being made almost every day on Dixie State University’s campus.

Brent Hunt is the CEO and founder of Soft Cell Biological Research LLC, and with the help of DSU students, he conducts research in the Science Building on campus. Hunt started the company over two years ago after experiencing repeated joint rejections and wanting to discover the cause. Joint rejections occur when the body refuse to accept a synthetic body part, such as a knee or shoulder, implanted through surgery. In most cases, joint rejections are caused by nickel elements in the manufactured joint.

“Between me and the other physicians working on it, we couldn’t figure out what was going on,” Hunt said. “I was [in St. George] volunteering in the [Science Building museum] when I started studying my own blood.”

Hunt has over 30 student volunteers helping him to conduct research on bacteria. Students are required to be in the lab a minimum of three hours a week and are compensated with course credits.

Jake Walter, a junior biology major from Ivins, is in the lab every weekday for about an hour each time.

“It’s really interesting to me,” Walter said. “I want to go into the medical field, [and the research] is something that’s new. We can help a lot of people.”

Walter said he is grateful for the credits he earns, but it’s not necessary for him to continue to keep coming back.

“I get three credits, but even if I didn’t, I would probably keep coming in because it’s interesting,” Walter said. “It’s something that can also help me to further my career.”

DSU students are some of the first to have discovered a way to culture bacteria from blood, Hunt said.

“That’s a huge breakthrough for science,” Hunt said. “We’ve known about cell wall deficient bacteria for 81 years since they’ve been discovered, but no one’s been able to culture them on a regular basis from blood. We do that every day.”

Students on campus have been able to culture 4,000 bacteria and identified 500 species. Of the 500 species, 400 are new to the scientific world.

“Today [this research] is not going to benefit you, but it might soon,” Hunt said. “Within culturing these bacteria, we’ve [come] across bacteria who produce antibiotics.”

Hunt said the bacteria in the lab have possible close ties to individuals with autoimmune disorders. Early research conducted on campus has shown that individuals with diseases like Crohn’s disease and lupus have up to four-times more L-form bacteria, or bacteria without cell walls, than those without these illnesses.

“It affects a lot of people, and it’s something that science hasn’t looked at specifically,” Hunt said.

Hunt said although there could be a relationship between L-form bacteria and blood cancers, he “doesn’t want to oversell” the idea that these bacteria can magically cure any disease, including cancer.

“We want everyone to know that we’re doing real science,” Hunt said. “We’re not dreamers in this lab. We know that road.”

Hunt said scientists were previously unaware of the bacteria he and his students are using to create antibiotics. Hunt and his students are working alongside Utah State University and the University of Utah to develop the findings of antibiotic-producing bacteria.

Other institutions from around the world, such as the Singapore Eye Research Institute and CARB-X, have reached out to the company to work alongside Hunt and DSU students. The CARB-X only chooses seven companies in the world to work with and has chosen the Soft Cell Biological Research LLC as one of the few.

“A lot of people are interested in our antibiotics that we produce naturally here,” Hunt said. “They very well could be to market quite soon.”

The findings will be used to create new antibiotics, and this particular research is only being done at DSU. Hunt owns the patents to the research he and his students conduct.

“A lot of people rush to publication, which once you publish that’s public material,” Hunt said. “You can’t patent anything that’s public information.”

Soft Cell Biological Research LLC also offers paid internships to four students, who are limited to five hours a week.

Garett Milton, a senior computer science major from Las Vegas, is the microbiology lab manager for the company. Milton says he’s in the lab for about 70 hours a week.

“This is my life,” Milton said.

On top of acting as the lab manager, he’s also able to do data and project analysis and management. He said, unlike most jobs, his job offers real-life experiences that he can use later in his career.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Milton said. “More than I can say.”

Milton said he is grateful for the ability to learn how to be a successful manager and the basics of laboratory techniques.

Hunt is set to travel to London Tuesday to speak with different companies about the research conducted as DSU.