Newswise — DALLAS – Jan. 26, 2023 – Two of UT Southwestern’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers in biochemistry and molecular biology will lead separate teams as part of HHMI’s Emerging Pathogens Initiative (EPI) targeting infectious diseases that pose a threat to human health.

A team of six scientists led by Kim Orth, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and a four-university consortium led by Benjamin Tu, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry, will receive two of 13 EPI awards. Drs. Orth and Tu are HHMI Investigators.

“HHMI has been extremely insightful in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to invest in the future,” said Dr. Orth. “If we are going to make headway to prepare for future pandemics, we need to understand emerging pathogens now.”

Dr. Orth and her team will receive $7 million over three years to investigate virulence factors, cellular structures, molecules, and regulatory systems that microbial invaders use to sicken human hosts. The research team includes Josephine Ni, M.D., Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and MicrobiologyTamia Harris-Tryon, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Dermatology and ImmunologyQian Cong, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biophysics and in the McDermott Center for Human Growth and DevelopmentKevin Forsberg, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Microbiology; and Lisa Kinch, Ph.D., bioinformatics specialist in the Orth lab.

“We put together a ‘dream team’ of investigators to answer fundamental questions about how pathogenic bacteria might evolve from benign strains, and we are incredibly lucky that HHMI decided to fund our ambitious project,” Dr. Orth said.

Dr. Cong is a Southwestern Medical Foundation Scholar in Biomedical Research, and Dr. Forsberg is a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research.

Dr. Tu and colleagues at UCLA, California Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison will receive $9.5 million over three years to search for natural products that could be used to fight emerging pathogens.

“Our consortium is excited to be awarded this opportunity to utilize an integrated approach to discover natural products with novel modes of action for development of next-generation anti-infectives,” said Dr. Tu.

Dr. Tu’s lab  is investigating how fundamental cellular processes such as cell growth and division, transcription, translation, mitochondrial homeostasis, and autophagy are coordinated with the metabolic state of the cell. Dr. Tu, UT Southwestern Presidential Scholar and W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research who holds the Martha Steiner Professorship in Medical Research, is recipient of the 2014 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research and the 2021 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science from TAMEST (The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas), among others.

Dr. Orth’s lab has advanced the understanding of the basic biochemical mechanisms underlying many bacterial infections by identifying new ways that invading bacteria hijack and deregulate a cell’s signaling systems. Dr. Orth, who is a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research and holds the Earl A. Forsythe Chair in Biomedical Science, is one of 24 members of the National Academy of Sciences at UT Southwestern and is one of 12 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at UT Southwestern. She is a recipient of the 2010 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research and the 2011 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science from TAMEST.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 24 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.