Summer 2013

Evan Snitkin battles superbugs

Evan Snitkin battles superbugs
Maggie Bartlett
Evan Snitkin '02 is a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health.

It sounds like a movie plot: Deadly bacteria are spreading through a hospital; medication won’t stop them, and the only solution is to quarantine infected patients. This is real life for Evan Snitkin ’02, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md.

He received national media attention earlier this year in Wired magazine for his work tracing the path of a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae, known as KPC, because of its resistance to carbapenem, an antibiotic of last resort. KPC can enter a person’s bloodstream and quickly shut down one organ after another.

Snitkin pored through a dizzying array of the superbug’s DNA to determine relationships between two patients with the same infection. At issue: Did Patient B become infected by Patient A?

“As quickly as we develop new drugs, the bacteria are becoming resistant to them. The best thing we can do for now is understand how the infections are spreading. Genome sequencing gives us more definitive answers for how the bacteria spread,” he says.

The outbreak started in 2011 at the NIH Clinical Center and, over six months, killed seven patients. Since it ended, sporadic cases have arisen, but genome sequencing has allowed for quick insights into their origins, and infection control has prevented further spread.

“In addition to coming up with more drugs, there need to be more protocols in place to prevent these outbreaks. The problem is not going away anytime soon,” Snitkin says.

Snitkin says the biochemistry course he took with Distinguished Teaching Professor Anna Tan-Wilson influenced his career path. The computer science and biology major enjoyed the strong emphasis on problem solving and understanding biological systems.

“At the time when Evan took my course, bioinformatics programs created for the human genome project were becoming more prevalent and quite easy to access, so I could incorporate their use into the class. Because he was a computer science major, I knew he could appreciate both the technology and the biological information that could be obtained,” Tan-Wilson says.