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Emmanuel Fordjour

Student honored for research on dangerous infection

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UT Arlington student Emmanuel Fordjour was a sophomore when he sought out Julian Hurdle, an assistant professor of biology, and asked if he could help research ways to fight a dangerous, hospital-acquired disease called Clostridium difficile infection or CDI.

Just two years later, Fordjour’s work with Hurdle has put him in an elite class – named a winner of the Washington D.C.-based Council on Undergraduate Research’s 2014 Posters on the Hill competition. Fordjour is one of just 60 undergraduate scholars from across the United States selected from a field of 600 applicants. In April, the winners will present their research to members of Congress, Congressional staffers and staff from government agencies.

Fordjour, a double major in biology and microbiology who plans to graduate in 2015, said the achievement represents another of the “mind-blowing” opportunities he has had since choosing to attend UT Arlington.

“My entire undergraduate career changed after I got into research,” said Fordjour, who moved to Irving from the United Kingdom after high school. “So many doors have opened up to me, chances that I never thought I would get.”

Hurdle said the prestigious award reflects the dedicated work of Fordjour and his research partner Kieu Doan, another undergraduate in the chemistry/biochemistry department.

“Emmanuel is a very promising scientific talent, exemplifying the high quality of students in the College of Science and undergraduate research participation in the Department of Biology,” Hurdle said. “This honor will provide him the opportunity to shine light on a disease that is hard to treat, frustrating to clinicians, causes much death and is now deemed an urgent public health threat by CDC. ”  

Clostridium difficile, an intestinal bacterium also known as C. difficile, causes severe diarrhea and is responsible for at least 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Elderly and hospitalized patients are especially susceptible. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named C. difficile one of the three most “urgent drug resistant health threats.”

Fordjour saw firsthand the toll that C. difficile could take while volunteering at Baylor Medical Center at Irving.

“C. difficile just stood out to me because it’s a formidable pathogen. You get sick and you think you’re done with it, and it comes back,” said Fordjour, who has volunteered 600 hours in the hospital’s emergency room.

In a project overseen by Hurdle, Fordjour and Doan tested combinations of current and in development antibiotics against clinically relevant C. difficile strains isolated from patients. He found evidence that combining a currently used antibiotic called rifaximin and an antibiotic called fusidic acid that is still in clinical trials in the U.S. was particularly effective against different strains of C. difficile in lab tests, gaining better results than either drug alone more than half the time.

This combination could also reduce the risk of C. difficile developing resistance to either drug during therapy, he said. The next step will be submitting those results for publication.

“Rifaximin which is used to treat traveler’s diarrhea is currently in clinical trials as a treatment for patients who experience multiple episodes of treatment failures for CDI.  The problem is that resistance can arise to rifaximin during treatment.  We hope the combinations showing improve efficacy over rifaximin alone, could provide a better treatment outcome,” Hurdle said.

In addition to Fordjour’s work with Hurdle, he is a member of the UT Arlington Honors College and a recipient of the UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or LSAMP, grant and a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program. After graduation, he hopes to complete a combined M.D./Ph.D. program and become a physician, educator and researcher.

Ashley Purgason, assistant dean for undergraduate research and student advancement in the College of Science, said Fordjour’s success brings prestige to UT Arlington and its efforts to increase undergraduate research opportunities. Administrators hope to see more students seek out extracurricular experience in faculty laboratories.

“We try to give our students the best education we can in lecture halls and in our laboratory courses, but what really ignites a lifelong love of science is when our students can go further and get the thrill of inquiry-based experiments and the original thought that goes with that,” Purgason said.