Wencewicz wins Sloan fellowship

Chemist chases future antibiotics inspired by nature

Tim Wencewicz
Tim Wencewicz, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences, in his lab. (Image: James Byard / Washington University)

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced Feb. 15 that Timothy A. Wencewicz, assistant professor of chemistry in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has been awarded a 2018 Sloan Research Fellowship. He is among 126 outstanding U.S. and Canadian researchers selected as fellowship recipients this year. The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the best scientific minds working today.

Wencewicz’ research is dedicated to the discovery of new antibacterial scaffolds and drug delivery systems that act against underexploited biological targets and overcome known resistance mechanisms.

Future antibiotics from nature

Wencewicz seeks to discover brand-new chemical structures that could inform new drug candidates. Much of this work involves mining the genomes and metagenomes of microbes found in nature for new antibacterial natural products.

He and his research team investigate molecules created by bacteria to determine how the bacteria use them — in signalling or in nutrient uptake, for example — in hopes of exploiting these molecule interactions in a therapeutic setting.

“We try to gain inspiration from how nature handles resistance and how nature develops antibiotics, and we try to build projects around that knowledge,” Wencewicz said.

Wencewicz also is researching ways to anticipate and head off antibiotic resistance, a huge, growing threat in hospitals around the world.

A battle inspired by Caesar

One of the ways that Wencewicz says he is fighting bad bacteria is inspired by Julius Caesar’s historical battle at Alesia.

Like Caesar at Alesia, Wencewicz knows he’s fighting an uphill battle — and aims to starve his opponent of its power to succeed. As an example of this approach, Wencewicz recently was awarded a $425,000 grant to determine how to block nitrogen metabolism in the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, a disease that infects more than 1 million children annually and accounts for more than 210,000 deaths annually. Funding for this project was provided by the Children’s Discovery Institute (CDI) of Washington University and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Mycobacteria — the bad agents in tuberculosis, and also in many pulmonary infections in children with cystic fibrosis — survive inside host cells, making them innately hard to treat. In this project, Wencewicz and his team are developing chemical inhibitors that disrupt an enzyme in mycobacteria and limit its ability to access the essential amino acid glutamine.

More about Wencewicz

Wencewicz leads the new CDI tuberculosis project in collaboration with Christina L. Stallings, assistant professor of molecular microbiology, and Jeffrey P. Henderson, associate professor of medicine, both of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Wencewicz came to Washington University in 2013 from the lab of Christopher T. Walsh at Harvard Medical School, Department of Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology. He was a 2017 recipient of the Cottrell Scholar Award and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Wencewicz earned his PhD in chemistry at the University of Notre Dame and his bachelor of science in chemistry and mathematics at Southeast Missouri State University.

About the Sloan Research Fellowship

Open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics — the Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded in close coordination with the scientific community. Candidates must be nominated by their fellow scientists and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars in their field on the basis of a candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Winners receive a two-year, $65,000 fellowship to further their research.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

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