Necrotizing enterocolitis is a leading cause of death in preterm infants, affecting approximately 30,000 newborns in the United States each year. A solution in the form of a liquid probiotic for preterm infants was developed and commercially introduced thanks in large part to the work of Steven Freese, an assistant professor at the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.
New peer-reviewed research has shown that this product – now used in major hospital systems across the country – reduces the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis. Working with a leading infant nutrition company, Frieze led research in support of the product and assisted with technical distribution efforts to bring this product to market, earning him Nevada Reno’s 2022 Foundation Early Career Innovator Award. became a suitable candidate.
Winning this prestigious award adds to Frieze’s many other career achievements, including being named inventor-designate on 18 patents, over 40 peer-reviewed publications and receiving the European Probiotics Association’s Jules Tournot Award for his PhD thesis. .
“I was really surprised and humbled to be nominated,” he said. “It was a really cool recognition of the work I and others have done. From the first discoveries about 20 years ago to the development and commercialization of the product, a huge group of people have worked on it.
Initially interested in understanding biology and how two organisms communicate, his career eventually led to a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Davis. When his advisors formed a company to spin off his research group’s discoveries as a startup company, he hired Friese to lead research and development (R&D).
His task was to understand what the organism in probiotics does to probiotic-fed infants, including the effects on the microbiome.
“We wanted to understand what the ecology of the gut microbiome is like and how we can use it to change and improve our knowledge of this system.” to work together to really argue why this is a valuable opportunity for preterm babies.”
The results of using this probiotic in hospital neonatal intensive care units have been overwhelmingly positive. According to a May 2022 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, administration of the probiotic resulted in a significant reduction in the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis and death from the disease in infants. Freese said one of the most rewarding aspects of his collaboration is the impact it has in the real world.
“The families went home with their children because of our work. When I started thinking about it, I choked,” he said. “It is truly unique to help hospitals move product acceptance away from fundamental discoveries [experience], and it has done really well. I see the whole life cycle: from discovery to impact, and that’s really rare. I feel really lucky that I could be a part of it.”
Another project Frieze is working on in his lab is The Wolfpack Study. The goal of this study is to “understand how the gut microbiome of people in northern Nevada is affected by diet, health, lifestyle, and other factors.” Study participants must be an adult Nevada resident and will be asked to provide a stool sample and complete surveys regarding their medical history, diet and lifestyle.
“We try to create demographically representative datasets. These are often held in college towns, where you might find 500 participants, but 300 of them are graduates, so that age-stratified demographic doesn’t exist. So, you We don’t actually collect data on the population as a whole. So what we’re trying to do is collect a really representative dataset of people from across the state.”
“Steven Freese’s collaborative research work is a wonderful example of the important practical applications of research,” said Mridul Gautam, the University’s Vice President for Research and Innovation. “His research continues to contribute to the growth and development of the university and ultimately society.”
Freese has served as a repeat faculty mentor for a portion of Undergraduate Research, Research and Innovation. He also helped organize the June 2022 Undergraduate Summer Bootcamp: Microbiome Research, an event supported by Nevada INBRE and the Nevada Bioinformatics Center. In this three-week workshop, students learned how to generate and analyze microbiome data. Students in this program also had the opportunity to participate in the WOLFPACK study.