Riley Leads Campus Group at Beijing Drug Conference

Margare Riley and colleagues in Beijing
From left, Robert Dorit of Smith College; Larry Schwartz of UMass Amherst; Richard Lenski of Michigan State University; Manuel Navia of Oxford BioSciences Consulting; Margaret Riley of UMass Amherst; Deputy Mayor Zhen-Jiang Sui; pheromonicin inventor Xiao-Qing Qiu; Sheng Liang, director of Beijing BDA; Shi-Long Zhu, deputy director of Beijing Municipal Committee of Science & Technology, and Rong-Qi Li, CFO of Pheromonicin Biotech, Ltd. (Courtesy of Beijing City Government)

Evolutionary biologist Margaret Riley and several colleagues spoke at a scientific meeting, the “International Conference on the Pheromonicin Drug Platform,” held in Beijing Oct. 19­–22, about the science behind pheromonicins, a new family of drugs based upon the bacteriocin protein.

Riley, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, organized the new international conference with Xiao-Qing Qiu, who invented pheromonicins. The meeting brought 30 international scientists together with 30 Chinese scientists to explore the science behind the new drug platform.

Riley and Qiu also met with Shi-Long Zhu, Beijing’s deputy mayor in charge of science and technology, whose office in February pledged $200 million to support a new pheromonicin institute in Beijing. Riley plans to open a sister institute in Amherst in the future. She says the deputy mayor, who invited the scientists to chat about their sense of how powerful the pheromonicin platform might be, is “quite pleased with our progress and is looking forward to supporting our efforts. We hope to hold the next conference in Amherst next fall.”

Others from the biology department who addressed the conference were Alex Gerson, who with Riley spoke on how pheromonicins may offer a potential treatment for white nose syndrome in bats, and Rolf Karlstrom, who spoke on pheromonicins as a biotechnology tool. Larry Schwartz and Riley talked about the potential of pheromonicins as broad-spectrum antibiotics for use against multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDTB), Staph aureus and other human pathogens.

Riley is collaborating with Qiu to develop powerful new drugs in China because of a lack of funding in the United States. Their goal is to increase the number of effective therapeutic drugs and strategies to combat drug resistance in quickly evolving diseases such as HIV, MDTB, malaria, cancer and cystic fibrosis.

Antibiotics now in use take a “shotgun approach,” Riley explains, which targets healthy as well as harmful bacteria. With this method, when people take antibiotics, the drugs also kill beneficial bacteria in our bodies that we need for good health. This can do more harm than good, especially for children who take antibiotics while young and may carry long-term damage to their microbiome.

She and others have evidence that a much more targeted approach is possible and believe it shows great promise for the future, in part because they have seen in experiments that bacteria have the ability to produce their own “chemical weapons” that attack enemy bacteria without hurting beneficial ones.