masami amakawa headshot

KGI Alumna Masami Amakawa and SURE Program Teammates Publish Findings on Anthrax Disease Surrogate Treatment

Anthrax disease, which is caused by Bacillus anthracis and transmitted from livestock to humans, poses a major threat to humans due to its virulence and lack of effective treatment. In their paper “Repurposing Clinically Approved Drugs for the Treatment of Bacillus cereus, a Surrogate for Bacillus anthracis,” recently published in ACS Omega, Masami Amakawa, MBS ’20, and a team of other then-undergraduates and recent graduates investigated treatments for anthrax disease as part of Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program.

Barriers to anthrax treatment include poor standards of care and the lengthy drug approval process. Amakawa’s team sought to overcome the second barrier by repurposing existing drugs to treat B. cereus, a relative strain that shares many physical and genetic characteristics with B. anthracis.

After screening 1,586 clinically approved drugs using a Johns Hopkins compound library, their study yielded five drugs that successfully inhibited B. cereus growth: dichlorophen, oxiconazole, suloctidil, bithionol, and hexestrol. Hexestrol showed the greatest inhibition across all tested strains.

“Being able to simultaneously screen hundreds of drugs, regardless of the indication, gave us an unbiased view of what could or could not potentially work on this particular bacterial strain,” Amakawa said. “We were definitely surprised at some of our findings.”

Amakawa and her team started the research in the summer of 2018 and continued to collaborate on the paper virtually after the SURE program ended and they were attending separate schools.

“It was a challenging but exciting process because a lot of the scientific literature was in a newer area,” Amakawa said. “Dr. Shilman and Dr. Levitin were huge supports throughout this entire process as well as our graduate assistants.”

“We worked as a team through the gathering of data and documentation.”

For the next year and a half, the team continued to collaborate on the paper, finding ways to reword it and present the data in a more comprehensible way, before submitting it to be published.

“One of the highlights of the program was meeting similar-minded, very passionate scientists from different backgrounds,” Amakawa said. “Some of us were international, and all of us had different types of academic training, so being able to convene and share our ideas fostered a collaborative and productive, supportive community.”

Amakawa appreciated the intensive labs and packed days where they were running a lot of experiments, but she also enjoyed bonding with her teammates after the labs.

“For some of our team members, it was their first Fourth of July, so we were all able to make a trip down to celebrate with my family in San Diego,” Amakawa said. “I made some very strong and meaningful friendships.”

After SURE, Amakawa went on to complete KGI’s Master of Business and Science (MBS) program with a concentration in Clinical and Regulatory Affairs. She now works for Edwards Lifesciences, where she coordinates with engineers and quality control specialists to ensure the safety and integrity of the company’s catheters and other ICU products. She feels that SURE prepared her well for her KGI experience and her career.

“SURE gave us a very holistic view of the drug development process and the research that goes into it,” Amakawa said. “Actually handling those products and seeing how the medicines can have efficacy in an in vitro level in the lab was very impactful, and it made the KGI courses that much more meaningful because I was able to reflect on all the time and effort that goes into developing these drugs. Then, being able to transition and focus on the regulatory side of the medical device and drug development process was also really exciting because you see how medicine can impact humanity for decades, if not longer.”