Vietnamese student wins $67,000 American fellowship for antibiotics work

By Binh Minh   January 27, 2024 | 08:00 pm PT
A Vietnamese student in the U.S. has been awarded a research grant of $67,000 by the American Heart Association (AHA) for refining an enzyme towards developing new antibiotics.

Nguyen Xuan Bach, 24, a native of Hai Phong City in northern Vietnam, is currently a third-year biochemistry PhD student at Duke University's School of Medicine.

In December 2023, Bach received a research award of $67,388 from the AHA for his project on developing new antibiotics.

Nguyen Hoang Xuan Bach at  Duke University’s School of Medicine. Photo by Bach

Nguyen Hoang Xuan Bach at Duke University’s School of Medicine. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Hoang Xuan Bach

Bach came to the U.S. in the fall of 2021 after completing a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Nagoya University, Japan.

He then received PhD scholarships from seven universities including Harvard, Cornell, Duke in the U.S., Oxford in the U.K., and British Columbia in Canada, ranging from $500,000 to $672,000 for five-six years. He chose Duke because he was impressed by the university's reputation for biomedical sciences, which aligns with his research interests.

In his first year of the PhD program, Bach explored various laboratories and worked with professors to find a suitable research project. He eventually joined a study on the synthesis process of a new antibiotic with his mentor, Professor Kenichi Yokoyama.

He explained that gram-negative bacteria, which are resistant to multiple drugs and are increasingly resistant to most available antibiotics, have become a serious issue in medicine.

Gram-negative bacterial infections cause severe complications and devastating consequences on the cardiovascular system via several critical pathways, he said.

When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, the effectiveness of treatment can be reduced or even nullified.

In 2019, Professor Kim Lewis of Northeastern University, U.S., discovered darobactin, a substance capable of killing many bacteria and considered promising as a new antibiotic.

Following that discovery, since June 2022, Bach and Professor Yokoyama have been researching the mechanism of darobactin's production to find ways to synthesize and develop it.

Using bioinformatics analysis tools, Bach found that darobactin is naturally produced by the DarE enzyme. A challenge in studying DarE is the enzyme is sensitive to oxygen, which means it is rapidly inactivated in the presence of oxygen, requiring refinement and experimentation in a nitrogen atmosphere.

Due to the enzyme's sensitivity and costly experimental conditions, few scientists globally can study it, leaving Bach with limited research to build upon, so he almost had to start from scratch.

After about a year of pursuing the project, Bach successfully refined the DarE enzyme, gaining an initial understanding of its mechanism.

"I feel fortunate because the initial data of the research was not too different from my predictions. Many people only discover in their second or third year that their research direction is not suitable and have to change course, which takes more time," he shared.

Nguyen Xuan Bach works at a laboratory at Duke University’s School of Medicine. Photo by Bach

Nguyen Xuan Bach works at a laboratory at Duke University’s School of Medicine. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Bach

In September 2023, Bach decided to apply for the AHA award. His application included personal information, a research draft, future research directions, his scores, three reference letters, and a training plan from his mentor.

The difficult part of the AHA application process is that PhD students cannot register directly but must be approved by the university.

In documents sent to the association, Professor Yokoyama affirmed that Bach is the best student he has ever mentored. He noted that Bach was able to describe and prove the feasibility of the project within a few months, while it typically takes a PhD student years to make similar predictions.

Besides the AHA, Bach also received funding from Duke University’s School of Medicine and a research award from the Center for Evolutionary Medicine Research in 2023, thanks to his research contributions.

"Overall, Bach is intelligent, possessing great potential to become a leading figure in the next generation in the field of microbial metabolic research," said Yokoyama.

Bach's immediate goal is to gather enough data and evidence to explain the process of darobactin production, thereby creating a compound library for animal clinical trials.

Regarding his post-graduation career, he believes working in a business or academic environment is fine, as long as he can continue his research. "I'm always curious about nature, especially chemical reactions and processes within it. Research might sound boring, as it can take 10-20 years, even a lifetime, to pursue a project, but every day brings new developments and I learn new knowledge," Bach said.

In addition to the prize money, Bach has now become a fellow at the AHA, gaining opportunities to participate in scientific seminars and connect with scholars from the association.

Duke University's website states that the AHA is the largest nonprofit, non-governmental organization for cardiovascular research in the U.S. The AHA's PhD scholarship is a prestigious and highly competitive award. For Bach's achievement, Duke University awarded him an additional $5,000.

"For me, AHA is not just a prize with substantial support but also recognition from professionals for the research I am conducting."

The young student also recognized he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

"My supervisor, Ken Yokoyama, has been a great supporter throughout my graduate school journey so far, and especially during the fellowship application period. Not only did he have to prepare some application materials himself, but he also provided very useful comments on my proposal. I am glad to have his support during the process."

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