Two molecular biologists from UT Southwestern Medical Center were recognized for their achievements and named Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators. The philanthropic organization focused on supporting biomedical research nominated 26 new distinguished scientists and Kim Orth and Joshua Mendell were among them.
Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Kim Orth and professor of Molecular Biology Joshua Mendell were the two researchers that joined 11 other UT Southwestern faculty members in the list of HHMI investigators. “Selection as an HHMI Investigator is based on the significance of the contributions a scientist has made to their field of research. Both of these talented scientists have made enormously important advances that will impact the future of medicine,” explained in a press release Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern.
Orth, who holds the Earl A. Forsythe Chair in Biomedical Science and is a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research, is responsible for a lab focused on studying pathogens’ ability to manipulate host cells to take advantage of them and survive. The research team she leads discovered novel methods in which the bacteria survives and spreads, supporting further research on host cells’ signaling processes.
“I am so proud and happy for my lab, the Department of Molecular Biology, and UT Southwestern Medical Center to be selected as an HHMI Investigator,” stated the researcher. “I thank past and current members of my lab and my many collaborators for their rigorous and relentless efforts to discover the mechanisms used by bacterial pathogens during infection.”
Her team was the first to find that the bacteria responsible for plague, Yersinia, is able to cancel the efforts of an infected cell to convene immune cells. The investigators also studies the bacterium responsible for food-borne disease, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, and discovered that the microbe injects a toxin into host cells that has the capacity to remodel the cellular membrane structure, provoking engulfment of the bacteria.
“Having HHMI support will allow my lab to identify new signaling paradigms used by both bacterial pathogens and mammalian cells. I am grateful for the support, friendship, and collegiality that I have received at UT Southwestern. It is an incredible place to do science,” continued Orth, who was also nominated with a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease in 2006.
With a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from UT Southwestern, Orth joined the institution in 2001 to work as W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research. Other awards and recognitions received by the scientist include the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation’s Beckman Young Investigator, The Welch Foundation’s Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Young Investigator Award.
“Dr. Orth has made pioneering discoveries regarding the basic biochemical mechanisms underlying many bacterial infections, identifying new ways that invading bacteria hijack and deregulate a cell’s signaling systems,” stated Podolsky. “Dr. Mendell has increased our fundamental understanding of the regulation and function of microRNAs in physiological processes, which is important for understanding wound healing, tissue regeneration, and diseases such as cancer.”
Mendell, who integrates the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center and is a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar in Cancer Research, has focused his studies in the microRNAs related to the gene activity regulation, as well as its role in disease development. The investigator demonstrated that the well-known protein that causes cancer, MYC, is directly responsible for promoting the production of a specific cluster of six microRNAs, enabling tumor formation.
The research team working at Mendell’s lab was also able to show the role of microRNAs in critical cancer pathways, as well as its importance in the process of wound healing. “I am extremely thankful to the members of my laboratory, past and present, whose outstanding work made this possible, and to my department chair Eric Olson and other colleagues at UT Southwestern whose support and collaboration have been instrumental,” he said.
Due to his studies and findings of new mechanisms able to control the amount of microRNA in both healthy tissue and tumors, Mendell is now determined to develop new treatments for human diseases, using animal models to understand microRNAs’ therapeutic potential. He was already able to slow liver tumors growth in mice, killing cancer cells with a specific microRNA present at lower levels in these altered cells, but preserving healthy ones.
“I am thrilled to be able to represent UT Southwestern in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute,” added Mendell, who had already been recognized as a HHMI Early Career Scientist. “This is an amazing opportunity to take our research in new directions to address the most important problems in noncoding RNA biology and expand our understanding of the roles of these pathways in human disease.”
Holding a PhD and MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Mendell joined UT Southwestern in 2011. The investigator had already been granted the Allan C. Davis Medal (Outstanding Young Scientist in the State of Maryland) and the American Association for Cancer Research Outstanding Achievement in Cancer Research Award, and was also distinguished with a March of Dimes Basil O’Connor Scholar, a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Scholar, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.
Chairman of Molecular Biology and director of the Hamon Center for Regenerative Science and Medicine, Eric Olson expressed the appreciation of the department about the nomination of the two professors to join the prestigious group, totalling 13 the number of HHMI investigators from UT Southwestern, and 17 from different academic institutions in Texas.
“The appointment of Kim Orth and Josh Mendell to the HHMI is a thrill for all of us in the Department of Molecular Biology,” said Olson. “Not only are Kim and Josh gifted scientists, they are also catalytic colleagues who enrich our department and the institution with their discoveries, energy, and collegiality. I anticipate even greater achievements from them in the future.”