Spring 2016 | Biology | Marquette University

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Karen Pehler Harrington

Biology, B.S. 1995

 

HarringtonI think I was always destined for a career in biology. My mom was an ER nurse (and a Marquette alum, too) and my dad was a USDA meat inspector. Our dinner conversations frequently included stories about their work experiences, tough patient cases and food-borne bacterial outbreaks. When I was in first grade I became obsessed with dinosaurs, reading every dinosaur book I could get my hands on and aspiring to be a dinosaur scientist when I grew up. I ended up choosing biology over paleontology, but science was in my blood for sure. Marquette and the Biological Sciences program gave me the opportunity to explore science in ways I had never considered before.

After taking Dr. Jim Maki’s Ecology class my junior year, I just knew that his lab was where I wanted to be. I applied and was accepted into MU’s Summer Research program and began working in Dr. Maki’s lab to evaluate the frequency of antibiotic resistance and plasmids in bacteria in Lake Michigan and that research continued on throughout my senior year. Dr. Maki was an incredible mentor! I have countless times over the years gone to him for advice, insight and support. He has always helped to steer my career path in the right direction.

 

After graduating from MU in 1995, I moved to Atlanta, GA and took a position as a Research Technologist at Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University. The leap from evaluating bacterial responses to their environment to evaluating primate and human antibody responses to infectious disease was a huge change. However, I was able to apply the knowledge and many lab skills I had learned at Marquette and soon after began my graduate work at Georgia State University, receiving my PhD in Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry in 2002.

 

As much as I loved the beautiful Georgia weather, I missed Wisconsin and family and made the decision to pursue my post-graduate career back in Wisconsin. I was fortunate to land a position as a Research Scientist at a small start-up company, Prodesse, in Waukesha. Prodesse developed multiplex PCR diagnostic tests to detect infectious disease pathogens. There were less than 10 employees when I started. Over the next several years, I worked with a great group of people to grow the company and develop and commercialize seven different FDA cleared in vitro diagnostic tests for respiratory and gastrointestinal pathogens that are used in many hospital laboratories across the globe today. In 2009, Prodesse was acquired by a large biotech company in San Diego, Gen-Probe, and a few years later Gen-Probe was acquired by an even larger biotech company in Massachusetts, Hologic. I continued on with the acquisition companies as Sr. Manager of Clinical and Regulatory Affairs and Clinical Laboratory Manager until 2014 when the Wisconsin operations were closed.

 

HarringtonMy colleague, Steve Visuri (an MU alum in Engineering), and I began talking about starting a company ourselves. At Prodesse, we had developed a test to detect Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection that causes mild to severe diarrhea and sometimes death. A new and rather unconventional treatment for C. diff infection had been gaining headlines, fecal microbiota transplant (FMT). FMT is the process of transplanting an entire complement of beneficial human gastrointestinal microbiota from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a sick patient, reestablishing a stable and resilient gut. What was most astonishing about this radical treatment was its success rate, FMT’s cure rate is 90% compared to only 30% for antibiotics in treating recurrent C. diff. Steve and I began to talk and share ideas on how we might develop a solution and make this treatment more widely available to patients in need. FloraSeq was started in 2015 and we have been working to develop an oral microbiota drug, essentially FMT in a pill, and are expecting to start a pre-clinical trial to test the drug’s efficacy in the next few months. Starting FloraSeq has been challenging and scary, but also so rewarding and fun. I think that best describes my undergraduate experience at Marquette as well. My four years at Marquette were some of the best of my life and they have given me an incredible foundation to build my life and career on. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes me next.

 

 

Read more about Dr. Harrington's work with FloraSeq in a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article: "FloraSeq LLC's 'poop pill' not for the squeamish".

 

 


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