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Pfeiffer, DeBerardinis honored as rising stars in Texas research

UTSW faculty members win Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards from TAMEST

Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis and Dr. Julie Pfeiffer
From left: Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis and Dr. Julie Pfeiffer

Two UT Southwestern faculty members will receive 2019 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) in January.

Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis, Professor at the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern (CRI) and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Genetics and Metabolism at UT Southwestern, and Dr. Julie Pfeiffer, Professor of Microbiology at UT Southwestern, will receive their awards Jan. 15 at TAMEST’s annual meeting near Austin, Texas.

The O’Donnell Awards – honoring four researchers statewide this year – recognize outstanding achievements by Texas early career investigators in science, medicine, engineering, and technology innovation. Each award consists of a $25,000 honorarium, a citation, a trophy, and an invitation to speak at the conference.

The 2019 TAMEST O’Donnell Award in Medicine recognizes Dr. DeBerardinis for his studies on the role of altered metabolism in cancer and in childhood conditions caused by mutations in genes encoding metabolic enzymes. Dr. DeBerardinis, an attending physician at Children’s Health, is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator and Director of the Genetic and Metabolic Disease Program at CRI. The 2019 TAMEST O’Donnell Award in Science honors Dr. Pfeiffer, a virologist, for work that has deepened understanding of the interplay between the gut’s microbiome – the viruses and bacteria that live in the intestines – and disease. Specifically, she found that some viruses use the body’s natural gut bacteria to replicate and become more infectious.

“As UT Southwestern concludes its 75th anniversary year, the outstanding science of Dr. Ralph DeBerardinis and Dr. Julie Pfeiffer demonstrates the promise of basic research to lay the foundation for lifesaving new treatments in the coming 75 years,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “We are grateful to Edith and Peter O’Donnell for their vision and generosity in creating these awards.”

“I am surprised and thrilled to receive the O’Donnell Award. Many of my role models at UT Southwestern have received this award, and I hope to follow in their footsteps,” said Dr. Pfeiffer.

She praised the outstanding collaboration she has with Dr. Lora Hooper, Chair of Immunology, Professor in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense and of Microbiology, and an HHMI Investigator.

“We are thrilled that Dr. Pfeiffer has been recognized by the TAMEST O’Donnell Award Program for her avant-garde research in virology, which has caught the attention of researchers worldwide. Dr. Pfeiffer’s bold work has spawned a new field of virology and viral pathogenesis that is now being pursued by dozens of laboratories investigating the role of the bacterial microbiome in facilitating human and animal viral infections,” said Dr. Michael Norgard, Chair of Microbiology. “This new avenue of investigation promises to broaden our understanding of viral infection, persistence, and transmission, with potentially far-reaching clinical ramifications.”

Dr. Sean Morrison, CRI Director, Professor of Pediatrics, an HHMI Investigator, and a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar, applauded Dr. DeBerardinis’ work, which includes pioneering a new way to study altered metabolism in patients.

In recent work, the DeBerardinis laboratory discovered that lactate is metabolized by growing human lung tumors, a finding that challenges a nearly century-old observation known as the Warburg effect that considered lactate to be a waste product of tumor metabolism. The new finding could prompt a major shift in how researchers view cancer metabolism and open new avenues of study for therapies and imaging techniques in lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.

“Ralph’s work has substantially advanced the field of cancer metabolism. From demonstrating the importance of mitochondrial function to using intraoperative isotope tracing in humans, he has changed the methods we use and the way we think about cancer metabolism,” Dr. Morrison said.

Dr. DeBerardinis, a physician-scientist, also credited collaboration for his swift success at UT Southwestern, where he arrived in 2008.

“Teamwork is key to our research, so I’m grateful to my clinical and scientific colleagues at UT Southwestern and CRI,” said Dr. DeBerardinis, also a Professor of Pediatrics and a member of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development at UT Southwestern. He joined CRI soon after its founding in 2012.

“I’m also grateful to our most important partners: the patients and families who participate in these studies,” he added.

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