Catherine Leimkuhler Grimes, assistant
professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware,
has been named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Grimes is one of 22 outstanding early-career researchers selected
nationwide for the honor this year, and the third consecutive UD
researcher to receive the award in the past three years — a record
matched only by the University of California, Berkeley, and the
University of California, San Francisco.
She joins a community of more than 500 Pew scholars whose ranks
include multiple recipients of Nobel Prizes, Lasker Awards and MacArthur
“Pew has supported scientific innovation through its scholars program
for 29 years. Time and again, this investment has fueled groundbreaking
discoveries that hold the promise of better health for millions of
people,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of Pew. “We are
pleased to welcome the newest class of scholars to a community that
continues to yield extraordinary findings in the field of bioscience.”
Launched in 1985, Pew’s scholars program supports top U.S. scientists
at the assistant professor level. Grimes will receive $240,000 over the
next four years to seed innovation at the start of her independent
Next-generation antibiotics research
“I am so thrilled to receive the award and am grateful to Pew for investing in my research,” Grimes said.
She and her laboratory group are working to better understand how
human cells recognize and respond to the presence of bacteria — both
commensal bacteria, which normally live in the body, and pathogenic
bacteria, which cause disease.
“Did you know that your body is composed mostly of bacteria? They
beat us 10 to one,” Grimes says. “For every one human cell, we have 10
Each of these bacterial cells has a cell wall that Grimes compares to
a coat. Besides figuring out how this coat is created and what it’s
made of, Grimes and her team want to know how the coat starts falling
apart in the case of infectious, disease-causing bacteria.
As Grimes explains, during a bacterial infection, fragments of
bacterial cell wall are sloughed and then are recognized by the human
immune system, which starts to produce anti-inflammatory molecules to
attack the bacterial invaders. Currently, however, the identity of these
cell wall fragments is unknown. She and her team are busy making
proteins that can sense a particular fragment, thereby yielding new
targets for developing more effective antibiotics.
Grimes and her team of postdoctoral researchers, graduate and
undergraduate students want to “trick” bacteria into incorporating a
molecular tag into their cell wall using a powerful combination of
methods from cell biology, molecular genetics, carbohydrate chemistry,
biochemistry, immunology and microbiology.
The research team’s work could not only help advance antibiotic
development, but also could shed light on how “autoimmunity” develops in
disorders such as Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis in which the
misidentification of bacterial products is thought to trigger chronic
Grimes, who received her bachelor’s degree at Villanova University,
her master’s degree at Princeton University and her doctorate at Harvard
University, has conducted antibiotic research throughout her academic
career. She joined the UD faculty in 2011.
What sets her Pew-funded studies apart is the emphasis on human
recognition of bacterial cell wall fragments. It’s an area that she
believes is destined to grow.
She points to recent studies that suggest a link between the health
of gut bacteria in mothers and healthy brain development in newborns,
emerging research on autism and a possible connection to gut bacteria,
and yet other studies suggesting that “mismatched microbiota” can mean
the difference between a skinny mouse and an obese one.
“This whole world of bacteria — the microbiota — influences the human
body,” Grimes says simply. “We have to understand what we’re living
with, and know what’s living in us.”
Pew scholar selection
Pew biomedical scholars are selected based on proven creativity by a
national advisory committee composed of eminent scientists, including
chairman Craig C. Mello, a 1995 Pew scholar and 2006 Nobel laureate in
physiology or medicine.
“Scientific breakthroughs often come from seemingly unlikely origins,
which is why it’s so important to give young scientists the freedom and
the support they need to pursue their most creative ideas,” said Mello.
“It is our privilege to help these outstanding investigators pursue new
research paths and work with peers across disciplines in order to
advance biomedical science and ultimately benefit human health.”
In addition to the scholars program, Pew oversees the Pew Latin
American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, which has provided
young Latin American scientists with the opportunity to receive
postdoctoral training in the United States since 1991. This year, Pew
and the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust launched a new national
initiative, The Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research.