Cell Biology Postdoc is First at UM to Receive Prestigious NIH Grant

Alan G. Goodman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cell Biology, is the first University of Miami researcher to receive a “Pathway to Independence” grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Goodman was awarded $500,000 for a three-year study of the molecules involved in STING (STimulator of INterferon Genes), which triggers cellular defense responses.

Of the hundred applicants vying for a K99/R00 grant, designed to launch the research careers of new investigators through mentorship, only six received funding this award cycle.

“This grant will not only help me take the next step in my career, but it allows me to work on an exciting project with two exceptional mentors,” said Goodman.

For his grant, “Conserved Immune Response to Sensing Cytosolic DNA,” Goodman will work with Grace Zhai, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology, and Glen Barber, Ph.D., professor and Chair of Cell Biology, who discovered STING, which activates the body’s innate immune system by triggering the production of interferon.

Although Barber, a prominent cancer researcher, and Zhai, a renowned scientist who studies neurodegeneration, may seem like an odd match – they have never collaborated before – Goodman will unite their expertise in hopes of solving another piece of a complex immune system puzzle.

Barber specifically found that host cells produce and release interferon in response to the presence of pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites or tumor cells. Published in 2008 and 2009 in the prestigious journal Nature, his studies solidified the importance of STING’s role in activating the pathway to begin production of the protein.

As Barber discovered, STING is a critical factor in facilitating DNA-mediated immune responses and of fundamental importance to understanding innate immunity, the body’s first line of defense against invading organisms. While the signaling events that occur after STING activation are well understood, little is known about the mechanisms responsible for STING activation – an area Goodman hopes to illuminate using Drosophila melanogaster, better known as the common fruit fly.

That’s where Zhai comes in. With more than a decade of experience studying Drosophila, she established the University’s first fruit fly lab with millions of the dew-loving arthropods in 2007. Because most of their genes are homologous to human genes, fruit flies have been key in Zhai’s study of neurodegenerative diseases and led to her discovery of neuroprotective mechanisms that could be the basis for developing new drug therapies for complex diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Using the genetically malleable Drosophila model will improve our understanding of STING function through the extrapolation of the results into the mammalian system for further experimentation,” Goodman explained. Information gained from his research, he hopes, will have a broad impact on the development of treatments for microbial infection and autoimmune disorders, which affect more than 20 million Americans.

Wasif Khan, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology and Director of the Postdoctoral Programs Office, who has been integral in Goodman’s fellowship training and mentorship, says the historic grant further elevates UM among the ranks of the nation’s top medical research institutions.

“This is an impressive and certainly historic accomplishment for a UM postdoc,” Khan said. “I hope this remarkable achievement will inspire other postdoctoral fellows at the University to reach higher in their research goals and tenaciously seek funding to achieve them.”

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