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There’s an Organism for That

“The dark ages of medicine.” That’s how former British Prime Minister David Cameron has characterized today’s era of “superbugs” — bacteria that respond to no antibiotic — and viruses that threaten a global health crisis. “We risk being in a post-antibiotic world,” says Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you bring up the topic of frightening superbugs with Seton Hall Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Tin-Chun Chu, however, she might reach for a nice cup of hot tea. But not just to drink.

Chu’s research centers on polyphenols, or products of metabolism, in green and black tea. Combine them with lower-than-usual doses of antibiotics, Chu and her colleagues have discovered, and you’ve got a promising defense against bacteria — and even certain viruses, like herpes simplex.

It’s a dream combo, which boosts the effectiveness of antibiotics like Ampicillin more than 400 percent, Chu says.

“We’re hoping to find something purely natural,” says Chu, whose collaborators working on green tea are Stephen Hsu of Augusta University and Lee H. Lee of Montclair State University. Chu and her Seton Hall students have also investigated the properties of black tea.

“We see all of those horrible side effects from synthetic drugs,” Chu continues, “where commercials tell you they solve one problem; then they give you 10 minutes about side effects. Now, we’re thinking that if we’re able to go back to the natural product and ingredients — anything already in our diet; some of the spices and herbs and stuff like that — we’re thinking that since everyone says tea has a good health benefit, let’s have the science prove it.”

In fact, the trio has done just that: Their joint U.S. patent, awarded last January, confirms green tea’s ability to inhibit endospores from the bacillus genus, which includes dangerous anthrax; and from clostridium, whose byproduct, botulinum, turns food deadly — implying that tea might be an excellent food preservative.

For her efforts, Chu was named Seton Hall University Researcher of the Year in 2013 and College of Arts and Sciences College Professor of the Year for 2013–14. This April, she was keynote speaker at the New Jersey branch of the American Society for Microbiology.

Not bad for a Taiwanese immigrant — now in her late 30s — who arrived in New Jersey in 1998 to visit a cousin in Parsippany. Back then Chu, who goes by “Tina,” was a student majoring in forestry at National Taiwan University, and that didn’t resonate. So, she took up her cousin’s suggestion to stick around and study locally.

Enrolling at Montclair State, she met Professor Lee, who had coincidentally attended the same high school and college back in Taiwan, and joined Lee’s lab.

Moving up the academic ladder, Chu obtained her Ph.D. in biomedical informatics from UMDNJ (which later became Rutgers) and involved herself in the study of cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms, those globs of green that float atop lakes and streams, which used to be called blue-green algae.

“Some strains of cyanobacteria can release toxins, and that’s very scary,” Chu explains, describing potential fatal effects to fish, and liver cancer in humans. One of the major toxin-producing cyanobacteria tainted Toledo, Ohio’s drinking water in 2014, and before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, caused Chinese soldiers to be dispatched to clean the rivers for rowing events by scooping up the blooms with their helmets.

“That’s why we went to China,” Chu says of work she did with Zhejiang University to isolate organisms called cyanophages, which kill the bacteria. She’s now collaborating with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to detect the blooms and cyanotoxins before they take root in local waterways.

Nowadays, Chu is conducting research on two tracks: bloom-causing cyanobacteria (and their cyanophages) as well as natural products, including tea polyphenols.

On a recent spring day, Chu led a tour of her sunny lab crammed with equipment and — as part of her “natural” focus — a patchouli plant and tea extract. (No dangerous bacteria on site, she assured a visitor.)

“I love to integrate my research into teaching,” said Chu of her teaching philosophy. “To learn science is to do science.”

As for those tea extracts that take up her time, Chu offered a piece of useful advice: Drink your tea hot.

Chilling the tea weakens its antioxidant effects.

By Joan Oleck

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