UA professor receives grant to study copper as an antibiotic

Due to its unrivaled mineral deposits, Arizona is nicknamed the “Copper State.” Dr. Michael Johnson, an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona, is taking that nickname to new heights as he embarks on a study to use copper as an antibiotic.

Copper’s toxicity makes it the perfect metal for combatting pathogenic bacteria. Deadly bacteria such as pneumonia and meningitis thrive on metals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium; consequently, microphages – which combat bacteria – take these bacteria to a “compartment” where they are deprived of these essential metals and are instead ambushed by copper.

Dr. Johnson hopes to capitalize on the effective role copper already plays in our immune system and take it to the next level; he believes it could be an integral part of the next wave of medicine. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has gifted Johnson and his team a $1.9 million grant to extend his research on copper.

“What we’re trying to decide is why that’s so effective,” Johnson said. “We know it works, but we don’t know how; things we thought we knew we’re currently revising. We’re basically using a basic science approach to drive translational discoveries.”

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins expressed his excitement for the grant and Johnson’s studies. “It is also quite fitting that this work is happening in Arizona, where copper has a long history as a major economic driver,” Robbins said. “Dr. Johnson’s work could be the path to uncovering copper’s potential as a novel, lifesaving tool in the fight against a deadly bacteria, and I am very excited to see the results.”

Johnson doesn’t want to make any assumptions before he concludes his experimentation, but he feels highly optimistic about the medicinal effectiveness of copper. “What I will say is copper has been used as an antimicrobial since the time of Egyptians, which was how long ago?” he points out. “Other antibiotics have been overcome by bacteria in the past 100 years. There’s something about copper that bacteria can’t adapt out of as quickly.”

Johnson emphasizes that although he’s excited for his research, he isn’t the only person in the state – or university, for that matter – uncovering exceptional scientific discoveries. “Make no mistake about it — I’m not the only one doing cool stuff like this,” he said. “You stand on some person’s shoulders, and they stand on another person’s shoulders, and they stand on another person’s shoulders, and then maybe we can peak over a fence and figure out how something works.”

He highlights his time at the University of Arizona as being instrumental in his success. “My department is great, my colleagues are great,” he said. “When you come to an environment where you work with your friends, it’s easier to get things done. I really feel happy here. The students and trainees in my lab have been awesome; they’ve been working their butts off because they believe in the cause as much as I do.”

As Johnson notes, “copper is on the up-and-up.”

Ben Norman

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