Dr. Donald (Don) Woods

Canada Research Chair in Microbiology and Professor at the Department of Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, University of Calgary
Researcher of the month: 
Jan 2009

Friend or foe: University of Calgary’s Don Woods aims to neutralize bacteria at a genetic level

Some bacteria are bad. These cause infections, and there is a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to developing antibiotics and cleansers to wipe them out of our lives. Some bacteria are good. They are vital to all ecosystems, help us digest food, and are key in many other bodily functions that keep us alive.

Dr. Don Woods of the Bacterial Pathogenesis Research Group (BPRG) at the University of Calgary is working to understand what makes some bacteria harmful to humans. The BPRG is a team of scientists striving to understand how bacteria at the molecular level cause disease. As part of this effort, Dr. Woods, a Canada Research Chair in Microbiology, is trying to understand how interactions between bacteria and their host can affect the virulence of the microorganisms.

Current treatments for bacterial infections are the medical equivalent of carpet-bombing, – attacking the bacteria with antibiotics designed to destroy all microorganisms entirely, good and bad. The problem with this approach is that it is rarely targeted to a specific infection, and overuse help speeds the evolution of “superbugs,” resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics.

Woods believes that there are genes in bacterial DNA that encode molecules that can cause disease in humans. He has already identified some of these genes and their products in Burkholderia spp., a variety of disease-causing bacteria found in both humans and animals. By developing vaccines to neutralize these gene products, he can freeze the bacterial “trigger finger” rather than attempting to wipe out the microbes entirely. In doing so, he will render them as harmless as the millions of other microorganisms that peacefully share our bodies.

Dr. Woods began his research career in the United States, after years as a clinical microbiologist in the U.S. Military hospital system. He came to Canada in 1982 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at University of Calgary Health Sciences Centre. He is active in several professional and academic societies including the American Society for Microbiology, the Infectious Disease Society of America and the Canadian Society of Microbiologists. He is widely recognized internationally in his field, having been named fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and serving on the editorial board of several international journals.

His vaccine work has broad applications, and he recently received a U.S. National Institutes of Health grant, shared with scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of Toledo and the Canadian biopharmaceutical company Cangene, to research potential vaccines for microbes that could be used in bio-terrorism attacks. While the immediate goal is biosecurity, Woods points out that this same research will likely be useful in developing vaccines to fight other bacterial diseases rampant around the world.

For further information, please contact Dr. Donald (Don) Woods using the Email contact form or by phone at 403 220-2564