Antibiotic-resistant staph research wins acclaim for Rodney E. Rohde
When penicillin became widely available during World War II — virtually ending soldiers’ deaths from infected wounds — no one would have believed that this miracle drug would ever become too much of a good thing. But more than 60 years later, chilling stories about antibiotic-resistant infections show up regularly in the news. And experts say that one of the causes is overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — is one of these resistant bugs. It’s a subject that Rodney E. Rohde, assistant professor in Texas State’s College of Health Professions, has researched in a study conducted in partnership with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). In recognition of this research, Rohde received the 2009 Scientific Research Award from the American Society of Clinical Laboratory Science. Each year, the ASCLS recognizes only one project in the United States that represents outstanding research in clinical laboratory science.
‘Regular Staph’ or MRSA? “MRSA is a bacterium that has become resistant to many of the typical antibiotics,” Rohde says. He compares it to the more common Staphylococcus aureus, with which many people are familiar. “About one in three people ‘carry’ or are colonized with ‘regular’ staph,” he says. “When you are colonized, you don’t actually have an illness, but you may be more likely to acquire a staph infection or transmit it to someone. The good news is that ‘regular staph’ is still treatable with most first-line antibiotics.”
When people are colonized with MRSA, however, it’s a different story. MRSA is resistant to these first-line antibiotics. “If not treated properly,” Rohde says, “MRSA can lead to serious illness, complications and even death.”
Rohde’s award-winning research was conducted in a Texas jail. “MRSA used to be found only in hospitals and long-term care facilities,” he says. “But in recent years we’ve found it in places with no identifiable connection to health care, such as schools, colleges, day care centers. This was the first study undertaken on MRSA prevalence in a Texas jail.” Rohde’s students in Texas State’s clinical laboratory science program assisted with the research.
The study found that, of 403 recently booked inmates, 115 carried the more common Staphylococcus aureus and 18 were positive for MRSA. Testing also identified 10 different strains of MRSA in the infected group. Rohde says that health care workers in jails should be prepared to prevent outbreaks by controlling transmission within the jail. They must also be able to treat the different strains of MRSA that inmates are exposed to before incarceration. Wound care facilities must be adequately staffed and stocked, and laboratory testing for effective antibiotics must be available.
Rabies Research Before joining Texas State’s faculty, Rohde worked on another high-profile health threat: rabies. In 1994 he was a microbiologist fresh out of graduate school and working for the state health department’s public health division. Governor Ann Richards declared a statewide health emergency because of the rapid spread of rabies in domestic dogs and coyotes. “Rabies was moving from South Texas toward San Antonio at the rate of 50 miles a year,” Rohde says.
He said they started studying the Canadian model of vaccinating wildlife populations, in which bait containing a vaccine is dropped from an airplane. Coyotes eat the bait and become vaccinated against rabies. The Oral Rabies Vaccine Program drops hundreds of thousands of pieces of bait every year over target areas in the southern and southwestern parts of Texas.
Rohde continues to be active in rabies research, including recently coauthoring an article titled “Bat-associated rabies virus in skunks,” which was published in the international journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. “I will always be interested in rabies research,” he says. “It was and continues to be one of my favorite areas of expertise.”
Texas State Roots In 2002, Rohde accepted a position at Texas State, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree in microbiology and master’s degree in biology with an emphasis on virology. He is currently working on his doctorate in adult education, and says he hopes to combine his two interests: academics and science. Since coming to Texas State, Rohde has earned three certifications from the American Society for Clinical Pathology: specialist in virology (SV), molecular pathologist (MP) and specialist in microbiology (SM).
A native of Smithville, Texas, Rohde’s history with Texas State goes back to its early days when the school had another name. “My grandmother, Irene Edna Preuss Rohde, was born in 1904,” he says. “She received her teaching certificate from Southwest Texas State Normal College, and when she was 16, she started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Paige, Texas. I used to joke with her about hanging out at Sewell Park with all the boys. I have some great photos of her near Old Main and other places around campus.”
Rohde enjoys his role as a teacher and a mentor. He teaches several classes in the clinical laboratory science program, as well as a class for nursing students at Austin Community College. “I tell my CLS students here at Texas State, ‘I hired people like you for 10 years. When you graduate, I want you to be so good that I would have jumped at the chance to hire you back then. I want you to get some real-world knowledge.’
“I think this program does a good job of preparing students,” he says. “Our students do clinical laboratory rotations during the latter part of their senior year. In every course I teach I try to incorporate a career or grad school component and get them thinking about it as a junior, not right before they graduate.”
Looking Toward the Future As an expert on MRSA, Rohde receives calls from people whose lives have been affected by the disease. “Its prevalence in most communities is low,” he says. “You can treat MRSA with last-line, really strong antibiotics. Sometimes the patient has to be hospitalized and the drugs administered intravenously. The hardest cases to treat are in patients who are immunocompromised, cancer patients, and the very old or very young. And you worry about the ones who might get neglected — the homeless, prisoners or just someone who can’t afford health insurance.”
Don’t take any chances with an infection, Rohde says. “Go to your doctor. The doctor will determine whether you have MRSA or something else based on symptoms and lab tests. And doctors depend on the clinical lab staff, who we train and graduate here.”
Rohde sees clinical laboratory science playing an increasingly important role in the future. “We live in interesting times,” he says. “With bioterrorism and emerging diseases around the world, CLS and public health are going to be critical components for the well-being of our country and world. We are creeping up on a vast drop-off of experienced laboratory workers, and it has been reported that 70 percent of a patient's medical care is based on clinical laboratory work. We need students to take a working role and a leadership role in filling this important and critical need.”
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