In an effort to better understand microorganisms’ resistance to medicines and improve treatment for disease, Prof. Craig Altier, population medicine and diagnostic sciences, and Prof. Kyu Rhee ’91, microbiology and immunology, medicine, have combined their expertise to co-direct the University’s new Center for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education.
The center aims to tackle the issue of antimicrobial resistance, bringing together experts from across Cornell’s campuses to engage in research and education efforts. Although both Altier’s and Rhee’s individual research interests relate to antimicrobial resistance, their academic backgrounds differ slightly.
A professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Altier has focused much of his research career on microbial ecology, the study of interactions and relationships within communities of microbes.
Altier earned his B.A. in biology from Hiram College before going on to earn his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Ohio State University. After completing his veterinary program, Altier completed a Ph.D. in the department of molecular biology and microbiology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Currently, Altier’s research lab focuses on the pathogenesis of Salmonella — that is, the way in which the bacteria makes people and animals sick.
Rhee, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, has co-authored numerous publications on tuberculosis, his research focus. Like Altier, he has an academic background in medicine, having earned his B.S. from Cornell before completing an M.D. and Ph.D. program at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.
Rhee’s research aligns with his work at the center, as tuberculosis is the leading cause of death due to antimicrobial resistance.
“[The research done at the center] overlaps with some of the work that I’m interested in, because some of the answers and principles that drive antimicrobial resistance in tuberculosis [may] be biologically relevant to other microbes too,” Rhee said.
Although they hail from different Cornell colleges and center their research on different topics, Altier and Rhee connected over their shared passion for antimicrobial resistance.
The two came to work together through the Office of the Provost’s Radical Collaboration Initiative, a program with faculty task forces across ten discipline areas. Rhee served on the infection biology committee, through which collaboration between faculty interested in antimicrobial resistance led to the center’s establishment.
“It was a happy accident,” Rhee said. “Over the course of that task force, the topic of antimicrobial resistance was the area of shared interests between the two of us… We were largely just spokespeople for a larger, campus-wide community of people that were interested in microbial resistance.”
Altier commented on his and Rhee’s complementary skills, given that they specialize in different research areas at different schools.
“He, at a medical school, and I, at a veterinary school, can cover the breadth of the problem and have [a good understanding], and if we don’t understand, we certainly have colleagues and connections who can be helpful,” Altier said.
As physicians, Altier and Rhee have seen firsthand the challenges to human and animal health that antimicrobial resistance poses. Altier noted the frequency with which the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center, where he leads the bacteriology lab, encounters microbes resistant to existing treatment.
“We see resistance every day. We get samples from all over the world, from animals from all kinds of species, and we see resistant organisms,” Altier said. “Antimicrobial resistance is a huge problem in human medicine.”
Rhee emphasized the center’s multidisciplinary approach in tackling the issue, encouraging collaboration between faculty across different fields.
“Cornell [has] unique breadth and depth and expertise across disciplines spanning human health and veterinary medicine, to agriculture, to the fundamental sciences — molecular as well as economics and communication — all of which are really essential in formulating new solutions,” Rhee said.
Altier echoed Rhee’s sentiment, adding that one of the most rewarding aspects of leading the center has been collaborating with faculty from Cornell’s various colleges — including the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and School of Industrial and Labor Relations, as well as his and Rhee’s respective schools.
“One great joy has been talking to our colleagues and, personally, gaining a lot of information about things that I never would have known before,” Altier said.
Through their work at the center, Rhee and Altier hope to increase awareness of antimicrobial resistance among the general public.
“A hope is that by increasing public awareness of the science and importance of antimicrobial resistance, this will help to create an identity for the large number of people that are affected by antimicrobial resistance, so that it can also receive the degree of public support that it actually needs,” Rhee said.
According to Altier, increasing antimicrobial resistance education would ideally encourage more responsible use of antibiotics.
“I would be exceedingly pleased if we could use this opportunity to change the behavior of those who both prescribe antibiotics and use them,” Altier said. “I would like us to get the level of communication with the public so that they understand better the societal costs of antibiotic use, and therefore of resistance.”
This story is a part of the Professor Profiles series, which aims to highlight professors and their research across Cornell’s campus. Have a professor to recommend for this series? Email [email protected]!