Amanda Leckband

AMANDA LECKBAND, a Brawley native and Montana State University senior, has done extensive work in antibiotic resistance and recently received a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

BOZEMAN, MONT. All Amanda Leckband wanted to do was borrow a book on celiac disease. It was a simple request, but it got the Montana State University student involved in research that led to a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The senior, who has done extensive work in antibiotic resistance, is now the third person at MSU and the first MSU undergraduate to receive a Grand Challenges Exploration Grant from the Gates Foundation.

The $100,000 grant she shares with collaborators in Brazil and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will allow Leckband to continue her research for 18 months. The Gates Foundation issues the Grand Challenges Exploration Grant twice a year to researchers who have bold ideas for solving the world’s challenges. Leckband’s team was one of 300 applicants and one of 11 recipients in the latest round of awards.

“It’s a really nice feather in our hat. It’s really awesome,” said Leckband, who is majoring in animal science.

David Sands, her mentor and a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, was the first MSU professor to receive a Gates award in 2013. Leckband’s award, he said, is an excellent example of what can happen when undergraduates conduct research.

“She’s a gem,” he said. “When she walks into a lab someday with the Gates award, that will help her.”

Sands was also the owner of the book, “The Gluten-Free Edge,” that Leckband wanted to borrow. Leckband was taking Sands’ introduction to biotechnology class when he talked about the book. Since Leckband, like Sands, has celiac disease, she stopped by his office.

Sands didn’t immediately give Leckband the book, but he asked if she liked to read and do research. He learned that the animal science major grew up in Brawley, California, an agricultural community that supplies the world with alfalfa, carrots, tomatoes and onions. The conversation continued the next time Leckband stopped by to ask for the book. And the next time. And the next time.

Leckband finally got the book. She also got a job working in Sands’ laboratory. That was four years ago, and since then she has been looking for a solution to a global problem: the resistance to antibiotics among calves, lambs and other young animals. With a depleting arsenal for fighting bacteria, antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, Leckband said. If animals can’t respond to antibiotics, they can die from scours and other diseases common to newborns.

To improve their chances of survival, Leckband started researching bacterial plasmids and a variety of Ethiopian barley now known as MSU 121. Plasmids carry the genes for antibiotic resistance from one bacterium to another, causing antibiotic therapies to fail. Leckband wanted to find a way to remove the plasmids so antibiotics would work.

Sands, who has been studying barley for 40 years, discovered MSU 121 in the 1980s in an Ethiopian village. Noticing 200 types of barley seeds stored together, he wondered if barley had been important in the village’s 8,000 years of existence.

“What was in the barley that allowed these people to survive the transition from hunter-gatherers to agrarian farmers?” Sands asked.

Sands’ team tested those 200 lines of barley and found one particular strain that was resistant to every virus they introduced to it. Former MSU graduate student R. Vincent Miller published his dissertation about that barley in 1986 and concluded his work by publishing the finding in the Canadian Journal of Microbiology.

Building on their work, after a hiatus of 30 years, Leckband planted 15 barley seeds that remained from Sands’ research. Then she harvested the new seeds and continued planting and harvesting until she ended up with 1,000 pounds of barley seeds. From them, she developed a barley juice that looked like a green smoothie. She added half an ounce to one gallon of milk and gave it to Brawley, her hometown. The second experiment, funded by MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program, involved MSU lambs at MSU’s Red Bluff Research Ranch near Norris.

The Gates grant will allow her to test her theories on a larger scale, Leckband said. Principal investigator on the project is Bruno Penna from Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Gates Foundation had issued a call to Brazil for research proposals that offered new approaches to the “global burden of antimicrobial resistance,” and Leckband submitted her proposal through Penna. Also collaborating is Noelle Bryan at MIT.

The project could lengthen the life of new antibiotics and possibly extend the value of existing treatments for animals and humans, Leckband predicted in her application to the Gates Foundation. She added that human welfare will increase considerably if the team can demonstrate the effectiveness of MSU 121.

On a personal level, Leckband, 29, said she already knows that she was right to pursue research and abandon her plans to attend veterinary school.

Research is something I actually really enjoy,” Leckband said. “The networking and the constant learning and teaching … I love the whole process.”

Reprinted with permission from msunews@montana.edu

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