Award for Research Excellence Offers Opportunity for Reflection

John S. Blanchard, Ph.D.
John S. Blanchard, Ph.D.

Dr. John Blanchard, the Dan Danciger Professor of Biochemistry at Einstein, has received the 2015 Repligen Award in Chemistry of Biological Processes, given annually by the American Chemical Society's Division of Biological Chemistry in recognition of "outstanding contributions to the understanding of biological processes, with particular emphasis on structure, function and mechanism."

Dr. Blanchard was selected for this prestigious honor in connection with his research of enzyme mechanisms and antibiotic drug resistance?in particular his identification of a drug cocktail that has the potential to help address extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB).

In discussing the honor, Dr. Blanchard noted that he considers his work with graduate students and postdocs to be among his most significant achievements in his 35-year scientific career. "The credit for the 200-plus papers published from my lab and the continuous funding we've received from the NIH goes entirely to my students. When I see them go on to forge successful careers, it makes me really proud."  

It is perhaps this humility that makes Dr. Blanchard both a preeminent biochemist and a beloved mentor, who has been enriching Einstein with his research achievements since joining the biochemistry department as a postdoctoral fellow in 1979. In 1982, he joined the faculty, thereby cementing an association that has flourished since.

In 2009, Dr. Blanchard and his then graduate student Jean-Emmanuel Hugonnet authored a research paper published in Science that described the combination of two compounds—meropenem and clavulanate—as a potent killer of XDR-TB-causing strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacterium that causes TB.   

Meropenem is a beta-lactam antibiotic—the oldest and most widely used class of antibiotics, which includes penicillin—while clavulanate inhibits beta-lactamase, an enzyme produced by Mtb to chop up beta-lactams.
Drs. Blanchard and Hugonnet demonstrated that, together, the compounds have the potential to deliver a deathblow to XDR-TB strains.

Two months after the paper was published, Dr. Blanchard received an e-mail from Dr. Marie-Christine Payen, an infectious disease specialist from Belgium, about a 14-year-old Chechen immigrant who lay dying from tuberculosis. Dr. Payen was keen on trying the combination therapy as a last resort to save the girl's life.

"Although my lab is a basic science lab and we don't do clinical studies, I was convinced of the biochemistry behind the combination's effects," Dr. Blanchard explained. He replied to Dr. Payen's query, and Dr. Blanchard refers to the chain of events that followed as his "most humbling scientific experience."

Once the drugs were approved by the European Union and patient authorization was obtained, Dr. Payen added meropenem-clavulanate to the patient's drug regimen. Eight months later, the girl walked out of the hospital. And today, she is a healthy, young woman of 20.

Dr. Payen continues to treat MDR (multidrug-resistant) and XDR-TB patients in her clinic with the combination, which will soon be tested in a clinical trial in South Africa as well.

"To see your research being successfully translated from the bench to actual patient care is exhilarating," said Dr. Blanchard. "But were it not for my graduate students and postdocs, none of this would have been possible. That's why my first slide in the Repligen award presentation will have a list of everyone who has been in my laboratory."

He continued, "My students generate all the energy, and they are my legacy."

 

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