President’s Lecture to examine turning tables on pathogens

By Deborah Wormser

Dr. Kim Orth
Dr. Kim Orth

To hear Dr. Kim Orth describe them, Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria act like pirates, setting off a high-seas battle in the gut.

The bacteria thrive in warm, brackish water, where they concentrate in shellfish. When humans eat tainted shellfish, the bacteria cause severe gastroenteritis (food poisoning). They do that by commandeering and bursting host cells and feasting on the contents like pirates bounding onto a ship and cracking open the treasure chests.

Dr. Orth, Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, will describe her renowned research on some of the world’s nastiest disease-causing agents at the next President’s Lecture, titled “Black Spot, Black Death, Black Pearl: Tales of Bacterial Virulence Factors,” at 4 p.m. on Oct. 17 in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium on the South Campus.

She has discussed her findings at some of the world’s most prestigious universities and scientific meetings. A faculty member since 2001, she is known around campus as a valued colleague and mentor. The first scientist in her family, Dr. Orth credits the mentoring she received as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University with changing her life.

As a teenager from Plano, she went off to the university planning to major in psychology. But she unexpectedly fell in love with basic science when she took a class on molecular genetics that inspired her to change her major to biochemistry.

“I had the most amazing professor, Dr. James Wild,” Dr. Orth said. “He was an amazing mentor who could just lecture and you fell in love with what he was teaching. It was biology, genetics, and chemistry all mixed together, and it was really cool.”

Following graduation, she earned a master’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied the genetics of fruit flies.

She returned to Texas as a UT Southwestern laboratory technician in 1986. Senior faculty members noticed the lab tech’s frequent questions at departmental seminars and encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, which she earned from UT Southwestern in 1993. After postdoctoral research in Michigan, she joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2001 as a W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research.

Dr. Orth has since identified previously unknown mechanisms by which invading bacteria commandeer and disrupt regulation of a cell’s signaling systems, thereby severing its ability to communicate with immune-system cells.

Her basic research has led to a new understanding of fundamental mechanisms human cells use for survival. It also demonstrates how basic science findings can lead to potential clinical treatments, in her case a potential way to treat soldiers’ battle injuries.

Recognizing how bacteria exploit the host’s defense pathways led to a novel strategy to turn the tables on the pathogens using their own traits to undermine them. If it works, it could lead to a new way to treat shrapnel wounds.

She was selected as a Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 2003, and in 2006, she was named a Burroughs Wellcome Investigator in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease. Four years later, Dr. Orth received the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, presented by the Welch Foundation, for her pioneering work.

Most recently, she was recognized by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas as one of the state’s rising star in research, for which she received the 2011 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science.

Dr. Orth – who has published papers in genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, and cancer biology – enjoys mentoring postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and high school students.

“I tell everybody to pick up as many tools as they can in their formative years. You should fill your tool box, because when you see a problem you never know which tool you’re going to need to use to solve it,” she said.

A reception will follow the Oct. 17 presentation.


Dr. Orth holds the Earl A. Forsythe Chair in Biomedical Science.