Duke Molecular Biologist Receives Commendation

Dr. Joseph Heitman, a molecular biologist at Duke University Medical Center, has been awarded the Amgen Award for research that has led to an enlightened understanding of human disease and therapy in the areas of transplantation biology and infectious disease.

The Amgen Award, presented by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), is among the most prestigious offered in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. Each year, the award is presented to a scientist who has made significant achievements in the understanding of disease within 15 years of receiving a doctoral degree.

Heitman, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, specializes in research of how human cells react to infectious disease and to foreign cells acquired through transplantation. His research eventually could lead to new drugs and treatments for transplant recipients, as well as Dr. Joseph Heitman, a molecular biologist at Duke University Medical Center, has been awarded the Amgen Award for research that has led to an enlightened understanding of human disease and therapy in the areas of transplantation biology and infectious disease.

ASBMB recognized Heitman for a lifetime of work, but specifically pointed to his pioneering studies using baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and the pathogenic fungus Cryptococcus neoformans as models to understand how all cells sense and respond to their environments. Using genetic and molecular approaches, Heitman has contributed to explaining how immunosuppressive drugs prevent the rejection of transplanted organs; how pathogenic fungi infect humans and can be targeted for therapy; and how cells sense and respond to nutrients, including sugars and nitrogen sources.

His studies have contributed to the understanding of immunosuppressive drugs cyclosporin A (CsA), FK506 (tacrolimus), and rapamycin (sirolimus), which are all now in clinical use to prevent rejection of transplanted organs.

“Other scientists initially thought we were crazy to use a single-celled organism like yeast as a model to understand how drugs inhibit the human immune system,” Heitman said. “Yet through our studies we have come to realize that the basic molecular principles of life were drafted very early in evolution, and that what is true for a simple yeast cell is very often true for our own more complex cells.

“We are thrilled and empowered to continue on the course we have set using yeast as a model to understand how the immune system functions, how pathogens infect their hosts, and how cells sense and respond to nutrients.”

Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz, the James B. Duke Professor of Medicine at Duke, and Dr. Ralph Snyderman, chancellor for health affairs at Duke University Medical Center, nominated Heitman for the award.

“In the relatively short period of time he has been here, his laboratory has made major contributions to the study of immunosuppressant drug action in yeast and applied this understanding to address fundamental questions of pathogenicity of Cryptococcus,” Lefkowitz and Snyderman wrote in nominating Heitman. “His work has had a very large impact on this growing field and this, together with his past studies of mechanisms of immunosuppressant drug action, makes him a most appropriate candidate for the Amgen Award.”

Heitman, who has been at Duke since 1992, holds associate professorships in genetics, pharmacology and cancer biology, microbiology and medicine. He was recently named a Burroughs Wellcome Scholar in Molecular Pathogenic Mycology.

He will receive the Amgen Award during ASBMB’s annual meeting April 20-24 in New Orleans. The award consists of a silver and crystal commemorative sculpture, $5,000 to the recipient and a $20,000 unrestricted research grant.