Heitman Receives Prestigious NIH MERIT Award for Studies on Fungal Unisexual Reproduction in Microbial Pathogen Evolution

June 14, 2011

DURHAM, NC – Joseph Heitman, MD, PhD, James B. Duke Professor and Chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, and Medicine at Duke University, has received an NIH MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

This MERIT Award will fund a project entitled: “The genetics of Cryptococcus sexual reproduction” in an extended cycle of 10 years as opposed to the typical R01 grant five-year time frame, which Heitman had previously received.

“This is especially gratifying as this is an extension of the first NIH grant awarded to our laboratory in 1997, and provides long-term funding to analyze in detail the significance of our discovery of a novel unisexual mode of sexual reproduction, with implications for how fungal and other microbial pathogens evolve and emerge to cause disease and outbreaks,” said Heitman.

The work on Cryptococcus is becoming increasingly important as harmful and new forms of the fungus have emerged outside of the tropics, causing an ongoing outbreak in Canada and the Pacific Northwest in the US. Globally, Cryptococcus causes more than one million infections annually including more than 600,000 attributable deaths and nearly one-third of all AIDS-associated deaths. Heitman’s genetic and evolutionary findings on this pathogen serve as a model to further our understanding of other fungi and parasites causing human infections, augmenting the recent discoveries of same sex mating of Candida albicans by Richard Bennett and colleagues at Brown University and selfing in outbreaks of Toxoplasma gondii revealed by Michael Grigg and co-workers at the NIH.

“This R37 MERIT Award recognizes the transformative insights that Dr. Heitman’s work has provided on the evolutionary origins of sexual reproduction from his work on fungi,” said Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, a globally-recognized authority on infectious diseases and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Heitman said he was humbled and honored at the news that this grant application had achieved a perfect score and was chosen for a MERIT Award. “This is a terrific reflection of our robust institutional environment for studies on microbial pathogenesis and genetics, and also on the partnership among investigators in basic science departments and physician-scientists in the clinical departments at Duke,” said Heitman.

”This award, in many ways, can be attributed to the tremendous long-term collaboration I have had with John Perfect, MD, Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Department of Medicine, and other clinical colleagues, as well as to the productivity, creativity, and talents of a group of students and fellows whom I have been privileged to mentor,” he said. It is also a positive reflection of our institution as a whole in its commitment to discovery-driven science and medicine.”

The overall objective of the MERIT Award program is to provide productive investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination, and a record of preeminent scientific achievements with the opportunity to continue making significant scientific contributions for an extended period of time.

In addition, MERIT awards are given to research programs that have been continuously NIH supported for at least three cycles of funding, that have received a top score in their study section for two concurrent competitive renewals, and that have no revisions or amendments required. An investigator can only receive one in a lifetime, and only approximately 5% of NIH-funded investigators receive a MERIT award.