Researcher of the Year

Robert ErnstRobert K. Ernst, PhD
School of Dentistry
Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Microbial Pathogenesis

Great people have great role models. They can be parents, sports coaches, clergy, co-workers. For UMB Researcher of the Year Robert K. “Bob” Ernst, what ignited his lifelong passion for science was his high school biology teacher in Geneva, N.Y., Edith Braun.

She inspired me to go into science,” says Ernst, who has attracted $3 million in research funding as professor and vice chair of the School of Dentistry’s (SOD) Department of Microbial Pathogenesis. “She showed me, through her energetic teaching and personality, that science could be a hands-on, exciting profession.”

Ernst’s current exciting project is engineering rationally designed mimetics based on bacterial surface molecules that will inhibit the body’s damaging immune response to sepsis, a condition that causes a death every two minutes in the U.S.

In particular, he is at the forefront of innovative research studying the molecular basis by which bacteria modify the lipid component of their membrane, specifically lipopolysaccharide (LPS), and how these alterations affect normal host innate immune system responses, potentially resulting in septic shock.

Antibiotic resistance is an immense threat to global public health,” says SOD Dean Mark A. Reynolds, DDS, PhD, MA. “In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million infections are caused by antibiotic-resistant pathogens each year, leading to at least 23,000 deaths. Dr. Ernst’s laboratory has made continued progress toward the identification of Gram-negative modifications that lead to untreatable infections.”

Ernst knows he is fighting a formidable foe.The risk of mortality from sepsis is up to 30 percent,” he says. “This rises to 50 percent with severe sepsis and 80 percent for those experiencing septic shock. Even those who survive are at risk for long-term effects that include amputations, anxiety, memory loss, chronic pain and fatigue, and poor cognitive function.”

Costing more than $20 billion annually, sepsis remains the most expensive condition treated in U.S. hospitals, Ernst says, adding “what is worse is that sepsis in the U.S. accounts for more deaths than prostate cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined.”

Asked if a cure for sepsis in his lifetime is a realistic possibility, Ernst responds, “Cure, no, there will always be infections. But being able to modify the host response to give physicians a better chance to treat the symptoms associated with sepsis, potentially.”

So Ernst continues his work, with colleagues from the School of Medicine, where he is an adjunct professor, the School of Pharmacy, and SOD. “This is the most collegial university that I’ve been associated with,” said Ernst, who was at four universities before coming to UMB in 2008. “The Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and our department work together hand in glove. We are now branching out to do work with cancer researchers at UMB, MedImmune, and the National Cancer Institute, as they are also looking for novel mechanisms to attack cancer cells in the body.”

One interprofessional partner, David R. Goodlett, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the School of Pharmacy, Ernst met as a postdoctoral candidate at the University of Washington. In 2016, Ernst and Goodlett co-founded a startup diagnostic company called Pataigin. Last fall, the company received a $25,000 Maryland Department of Commerce Life Award for its patented test called “BACLIB” that inexpensively identifies bacteria- and fungi-causing infections in less than an hour, allowing clinicians to make decisions in the hospital at the “point-of-care.”

What long-range goals does Ernst have for the company?

“We would like to be able to rapidly identify bacteria and fungi directly from biological samples [blood, urine, wound effluent] so that clinicians can make more informed decisions to reduce the use of inappropriate antibiotics thereby helping the patient,” Ernst says. “If we can reduce the size and cost of the instrumentation, it would be ideal to have it in any clinical setting or make it mobile so that it could be easily deployable in an outbreak or Third World setting.”

Ernst has received ongoing support from the National Institutes of Health in the form of multiple grants as well as MedImmune, University of Maryland Ventures Seed Grant Funding, and the state of Maryland Technology Development Corporation.

An active mentor who gets his greatest satisfaction from “seeing smart, energetic people in the lab do well,“ Ernst takes pride in having the opportunity to help shape future dental clinicians.

“There are 400 to 500 different species of bacteria in the mouth, laid down like tiles,” he says. “With over 60 microbiology UMB faculty on campus, our dental students get superior training in microbiology. Today’s dentists are the ‘above the shoulders’ specialists, and the training they get here makes them a more complete dentist.”

It’s something Ernst’s mentor, Edith Braun, “a powerhouse in a very small package,” could appreciate. For now, he’s still getting used to being named UMB’s Researcher of the Year. “The award is a huge honor for me and all the past and present members of my lab. I learn with them and many times, good things come from their hard work."