Heitman to Chair the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Durham, N.C. (September 2009) — Joseph Heitman, M.D., Ph.D., James B. Duke Professor, Director of the Center for Microbial Pathogenesis, and former Director of the Duke University Program in Genetics and Genomics, has been named Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University Medical Center.

Heitman is a physician-scientist, internationally recognized in microbial genetics, transplant biology/pharmacology, and infectious diseases. His research utilizes fungi as biological models and focuses on how cells sense and respond to the environment and the host, and the evolution and impact of sexual reproduction in microbes. He will oversee administrative and research activities in the department that focuses on genetics and microbiology, and bridges between the two. Studies in the MGM Department range from the genetic analysis of genome stability and repair in model systems to the identification of genes responsible for inherited human disease to the analysis of genes that are responsible for pathogenicity of microorganisms (including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites).

Heitman begins his duties September 1, 2009. His appointment was announced by Nancy Andrews, M.D., Ph.D., Dean of the School of Medicine and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Duke University Medical Center.

Heitman has been recognized for his research that discovered targets and mechanisms of action for widely used immunosuppressants that revolutionized transplant medicine, elucidated conserved pathways via which cells sense nutrients, defined mechanisms enabling pathogenic fungi to cause infection, and provided insight into how sex and sex determination evolve with implications for emerging and established microbial pathogens. His studies have further contributed to define mechanisms and pathways targeted by antifungal drugs and novel drug combinations with potential therapeutic applications for Cryptococcus neoformans, Candida albicans, and Aspergillus fumigatus ,and to provide insights into an outbreak of fungal disease caused by Cryptococcus gattiioccurring in the Pacific Northwest and documenting its recent expansion into the United States.

“I look forward to the challenges and opportunities in advancing a focus on microbiology and genetics and their intersection, to contribute to realize the potential of the institution at the interface of science and medicine, and to continue to develop a robust training environment for students and fellows who will the next generation of independent investigators,” Heitman said.

Heitman received B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Chicago in chemistry and biochemistry, and MD-PhD degrees from Cornell and Rockefeller Universities for studies with Peter Model and Norton Zinder on restriction enzymes and bacterial DNA damage and repair responses. Heitman was an EMBO fellow at the Biocenter in Basel, Switzerland where, in studies with Mike Hall, he initiated the use of yeast as a model for studies of immunosuppressive drug action that led to the discovery of FKBP12 and Tor as the targets of the immunosuppressive drugs FK506 and rapamycin. He has been a faculty member in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology since 1992.

During his tenure at Duke, Heitman has maintained an active NIH-funded research laboratory and was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator from 1992 to 2005. He has authored over 250 peer-reviewed articles and edited three textbooks, and has received many awards and honors for his research, including the Gustavo Cudkowicz Memorial Prize in Immunobiology in 1991, Cornell University Medical College, the AMGEN award from the ASBMB in 2002 for fundamental contributions to understanding human disease, and the Squibb award from the IDSA in 2003 for outstanding contributions to infectious disease research.  He was elected a fellow of the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI) in 2003, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) in 2003, the American Academy of Microbiology in 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2004, and the Association of American Physicians (AAP) in 2006.

Heitman succeeds Tom Petes, Ph.D., Minnie Geller Professor, who served as Chair from 2004-2009.