By Michael Haederle

Deserving of MERIT

UNM Researcher Wins Prestigious Recognition

University of New Mexico researcher Vojo Deretic, PhD, has long been recognized as a pioneer in a fast-developing area of bioscience.

Now, he has been selected for a prestigious MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health to continue his path-breaking study of autophagy - the cellular process that promises to hold the key to curing infectious diseases and cancer.

The MERIT (for Method to Extend Research in Time) award means that Deretic, who joined the UNM Health Sciences Center in 2001, will have his research funded for another eight to 10 years without having to submit it for a competitive renewal process.

"NIH, unbeknownst to me, nominated us for the MERIT award," said Deretic, professor, chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology and director of UNM's Autophagy, Inflammation and Metabolism in Disease (AIM) Center. "It's a pretty good recognition."

Fewer than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators are selected to received MERIT awards, which recognize high levels of competence and productivity, said Executive Vice Chancellor Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD.

"This honor is well-deserved," Larson said. "It's appropriate recognition for a scientist who has so many significant and impactful scientific discoveries to his credit."

Autophagy (from the Greek roots auto, "self," and phagein, "to eat") is how cells "clean house," by removing or recycling damaged organelles and proteins. It also plays a role in fighting infections and diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmune diseases, degenerative neurological conditions and aging.

Scientists have grown more interested in autophagy in recent years - and Deretic has played a central role in explaining how it affects inflammatory diseases and infections. His group has shown, for example, that cells use autophagy to eliminate invasive microbes, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Deretic's prominence in this rapidly expanding field was reflected in his appointment as chair of the 2012 Gordon Research Conference on Autophagy. And last year, he was awarded a five-year $11 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to establish the AIM Center.

The center studies autophagy and its connections with inflammation and metabolism as a basis for disease, bringing together researchers and junior faculty from across UNM.

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