Dr. Robert Bonomo, MD, Professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and Chief at the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veteran Affairs, is a longstanding contributor to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), having served in leadership literature review roles for over 13 years. He gave a vast presentation at the recent 2017 ASM Microbe conference that started with his most inspirational experiences that shaped who he has become. He then described several touching real-life stories of translational research saving lives.
To begin his presentation, Dr. Bonomo told the story of how, in 1983, he met his paternal grandfather for the first time in Italy. His grandfather put him on his knee and told him Sardinian stories about soldiers scaling walls. These soldiers would encourage each other with, “sempre avanti,” ever forwards and don’t look back!
The inspiration around him continued to encourage his development and he described several formative heroes from his childhood in the Bronx, including a Gertrude Belle Elion, PhD(h), who taught him, “Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do it.” In addition, Dr. Bonomo described how he will never forget when Nobel prize winner and discoverer of the polio virus, Frederick Chapman Robbins, MD, spent an hour with his 5-year-old child at the time, explaining how polio virus was so important. Dr. Bonomo remarked that he will always appreciates his first biochemistry mentor, the inimitable Richard Hanson, PhD.
As a young practicing physician, Dr. Bonomo was amazed that a one amino acid substitution could take a 10-billion-dollar drug and render it useless. He was impressed and drawn to this research. After 4 years of private practice, he decided that he wanted to do something with research to address why lifesaving antibiotics were losing their efficacy. It was a pivotal time.
Dr. Bonomo was fascinated with the possibility of looking at a drug structure and being able to predict with some certainty how it will affect an inhibition, and then witnessing expected clinical activities. In his presentation, he described how he worked with collaborator after collaborator, some with over 100 projects together, to understand how to make more effective and potentially lifesaving β -lactamase inhibitors.
Compared to tazobactam, new inhibitors could get into the enzyme active site and stay, making them highly advantageous. But, then, the carbapenemases came. Dr. Bonomo described them as the “four horsemen,” with a precipitous trajectory to the gates of hell. These enzymes changed the game. No drug could be used! Previously, antibiotics had added 10 years to life for all of us, but now this was threatened with the carbapenemases.