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Duke Physician-Scientist Receives Prestigious NIH MERIT Award for Studies on Fungal Unisexual Reproduction in Microbial Pathogen Evolution

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Joseph Heitman, MD, PhD, James B. Duke Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology 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, rather than the typical five-year time frame of R01 grants, which Heitman had received previously.

“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 implications of our discovery of a novel unisexual mode of sexual reproduction,” said Heitman. “This work has implications for how fungal and other microbial pathogens evolve and emerge to cause disease and outbreaks.”

The work on Cryptococcus is gaining in importance as harmful and new forms of the fungus have appeared outside of the tropics in new regions of the globe, causing an ongoing outbreak in Canada and the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.

Globally, Cryptococcus causes more than one million infections annually and more than 600,000 attributable deaths, accounting for about one-third of all AIDS-associated deaths. Dr. Heitman’s genetic and evolutionary findings on this pathogen serve as a paradigm to understand other fungi and parasites causing human infections.

“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 world authority on infectious diseases and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. Heitman said he was humbled and honored at the news that this grant application received 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 the partnership among basic scientists and physician-scientists at Duke,” said Heitman.

”This advance is the result of a tremendous long-term collaboration with John Perfect, MD, in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, and other clinical colleagues, and the productivity and creativity of a group of talented students and fellows whom I have been privileged to mentor and reflects well on our institutional 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 with a record of preeminent scientific achievements the opportunity to continue making fundamental contributions of lasting scientific value.

MERIT Awards provide long-term, stable support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are likely to continue in the future and are intended to foster their continued creativity and lessen the administrative burdens associated with the preparation and submission of research grant applications.

MERIT awards are given in recognition of exemplary research programs that have been continuously NIH supported for at least three cycles of funding, and for which two concurrent competitive renewals receive a top score in their study section, and for which no revisions or amendments were required. 

An investigator can only receive one in a lifetime, and only about 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators receive a MERIT award.

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