Milken Institute School of Public Health Receives Two Grants for a Total of $7 Million to Study Microbiome and Disease Prevention

Studies Could Lead to New Strategies to Stop the Spread of HIV, Staph and MRSA

Media Contact: Kathy Fackelmann,, 202-994-8354

WASHINGTON, DC (June 14, 2016)—The Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University (Milken Institute SPH) today announced receiving two separate awards for a total of $7 million to study the human microbiome, the collection of bacteria and other microbes that live in and on the human body. The first study, a $3.3 million award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), will focus on the bacterial ecosystem of the penis and how it may affect an individual’s risk for acquiring an HIV infection. The second study, a $3.7 million award from NIAID, will focus on bacteria living in the human nose with the goal of finding strategies to protect people from dangerous Staph infections.

These grants were awarded to two investigators from the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Milken Institute SPH: Lance Price, PhD, a Professor and Cindy Liu, MD, MPH, PhD, an Assistant Research Professor who serve as Principal Investigator and co-Investigator, respectively, on the projects.

“These studies will tell us more about the colonies of microbes living in and on the human body,” says Price, who is also the Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center based at Milken Institute SPH. “In both cases, we will be looking for ways to alter the microbiome and protect people from disease that can range from sexually transmitted HIV to potentially lethal superbug infections.”

In the first project, Price, Liu and their collaborators will look at bacteria living on the penis and the role they play in vulnerability to HIV. A 2013 study by Liu, Price and others found that circumcision of the penis led to a drop in anaerobic bacteria. There’s evidence that the decline in such bacteria might protect women from HIV but the new study will look for a direct link in men, Price says.

“This study will tell us more about the sharp drop in anaerobic bacteria after circumcision and a man’s risk of becoming infected by HIV,” Price says.  Anaerobic bacteria dwindle after a circumcision because there is more oxygen and anaerobes need low-oxygen environments to thrive on the penis and elsewhere. “If anaerobic bacteria play a role in transmission of HIV, we might be able to develop novel ways of preventing HIV infection.”

The study’s findings could lead to ways to amplify protection against HIV for men—whether or not the individual is circumcised, Liu notes. If the research finds that these anaerobic bacteria play a direct role in increasing the risk of HIV, then future research could look for ways to reduce penile anaerobes or modify the ecosystem of the penis to prevent HIV infections, Liu says.

The second award, which is also from NIAID, will study the bacteria that live in the human nasal cavity with the goal of finding innovative ways to prevent infections with Staphylococcus aureus and particularly a dangerous type of antibiotic-resistant Staph called MRSA. While staph is a common inhabitant of the human nose, people who carry it are at increased risk of developing life-threatening Staph infections.

In this project, Price, Liu and their collaborators will look to see if other bacteria living in the human nose may exclude the Staph that is already residing there or potentially keep out this risky opportunistic pathogen. Eventually, the research team hopes to find out whether they could identify and introduce bacteria capable of routing Staph from the nose in an approach that could protect people at risk of infection, especially with drug resistant forms of Staph, such as MRSA.

“This study will show us whether we can introduce the good bugs to crowd out the bad,” Liu says. “If we are successful this probiotic approach could be used to prevent the spread of superbugs like MRSA and others that have become resistant to multiple antibiotics.”

In addition to Drs. Price and Liu, the penile microbiome research team includes scientists from the Rakai Health Sciences Program, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine, as well as the University of Toronto. The nasal microbiome research team also comprises scientists from the Statens Serum Institut, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Texas Medical Branch.


About Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University: Established in July 1997 as the School of Public Health and Health Services, Milken Institute School of Public Health is the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Today, more than 1,900 students from 54 U.S. states and territories and more than 50 countries pursue undergraduate, graduate and doctoral-level degrees in public health. The school also offers an online Master of Public Health, MPH@GW, and an online Executive Master of Health Administration, MHA@GW, which allow students to pursue their degree from anywhere in the world.