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Award Honors Research on Communication Between Bacteria and Humans

University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center microbiologist Dr. Neal Alto (photo) has been named a recipient of the 2017 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research for his work on interspecies communication between disease-causing bacteria and the humans they infect. The Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, presents the $100,000 award annually to honor early-career scientists at Texas institutions who are expanding the frontiers of chemistry. The award is named after Dr. Norman Hackerman, an internationally known chemist and former president of both the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University. Dr. Alto, an Associate Professor of Microbiology, is the sixth UT Southwestern researcher to receive the award since it was first given in 2002. This year marks the first time the award has been presented to two scientists; the other recipient is Dr. Delia J. Milliron of UT Austin for her research on semiconductor nanocrystals. “Dr. Alto’s insights into the intersection between bacteria and our immune defense system have the potential to lead to new approaches to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, which remain among the most challenging health problems worldwide,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern and holder of the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science. “Through the application of his expertise in both microbiology and chemistry, we are confident that with the support of this award, Dr. Alto will make significant further advances in this vital area of research, and we are proud to see him honored in this way.” The Alto laboratory studies bacterial toxins that interfere with essential processes of human cells. The chemical reactions catalyzed by bacterial toxins block host cellular communication systems, often causing infectious disease, Dr. Alto said. In this way, the chemical modifications researchers discovered reveal new strategies for the development of antibiotics that target deadly infectious agents. Reporting in Nature in 2013, Dr. Alto and colleagues found that a bacterium (Shigella) blamed for an estimated 90 million cases of food-borne illness each year undermines a host’s defense by using a fat-snipping enzyme to disable cellular communication that normally sends an alarm to the immune system. This Nature article is titled “Proteolytic Elimination of N-myristoyl Modifications by the Shigella Virulence Factor IpaJ.” The work also has implications in cancer biology because the same fatty acid chemical modification plays a crucial role in the transformation of normal cells into cancerous ones and in promoting tumor growth.

Dr. Michael Norgard, Chair of Microbiology, said Dr. Alto has made major contributions toward understanding how pathogens deploy toxic molecules that facilitate pathogen survival by hijacking host-cell mechanisms.

“Microbial infections continue to be the leading cause of deaths worldwide,” Dr. Norgard said. “The Alto laboratory has solved the atomic structure of host-pathogen molecular complexes, resulting in new insights into how bacteria attack host cells; the work potentially could lead to new antimicrobial strategies and agents to address the worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance.”

“I thank the Welch Foundation for this great honor, and for supporting research in important areas of chemistry and microbiology,” said Dr. Alto. “I also thank my mentors who have helped shape my scientific vision, my colleagues at UT Southwestern who are an endless source of inspiration, and my trainees who have put in the hard work and dedication to make these discoveries possible.”

Dr. Alto earned his Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from the Oregon Health and Science University. He joined UT Southwestern as an Assistant Professor in 2007 following a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Alto has published in many of the most prestigious scientific journals such as Cell, Science, Nature, and Molecular Cell. His previous awards include the Merck Irving S. Sigal Memorial Award, a Faculty Scholar Award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Simons Foundation, and the Biomedical Research Collaboration Award from The Hartwell Foundation. He was also chosen as an Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

UT Southwestern’s previous Hackerman Award winners are Dr. Benjamin Tu, Associate Professor of Biochemistry, in 2014; Dr. Kim Orth, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, in 2010; Dr. Patrick Harran, former Professor of Biochemistry, in 2007; Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen, Professor of Molecular Biology and in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense, in 2005; and Dr. Xiaodong Wang, former Professor of Biochemistry, in 2003.

This article is based on a March 2, 2017 press release from UT Southwestern Medical Center.

[Press release] [Nature abstract] [Science Daily article on Nature report] [Dr. Neal Alto profile ]