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Neal Alto, Ph.D., University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, has been honored with a 2013 Merck Irving S. Sigal Memorial Award. This award, presented in memory of Irving S. Sigal, who was instrumental in the early discovery of therapies to treat HIV/AIDS, recognizes early career scientists who have produced outstanding basic research in medical microbiology and infectious diseases.
Dr. Alto earned his bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University in 1996, and after a short time at the University of Utah, completed his graduate degree in Cell Biology from Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in 2003. As a student in Dr. John Scott’s laboratory in the Vollum Institute at OHSU, Neal established a unique connection between Ras-family small G-protein signaling and cAMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA) function in neurons. This early work established his interest in cell biology and particularly the spatial and temporal aspects of cell-to-cell communication. As a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Jack Dixon’s lab at the University of California San Diego, Alto began to study how bacterial pathogens and human cells communicate. He discovered a large family of bacterial type III effector proteins that directly activate Rho-family GTPase signaling systems of the host cell. Dixon describes Alto as “bright, insightful, hardworking, and one of those rare individuals who comes along once every decade or so.” The work Alto completed in Dixon’s laboratory greatly expanded the repertoire of bacterial proteins that hijack human signal transduction cascades and provided insight into the evolution of protein mimicry at the biochemical and structural level.
In 2007, Alto joined the faculty of Microbiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as the Rita C. and William P. Clements Jr. Scholar in Medical Research. He has continued to study the molecular interplay between bacterial pathogens and host signal transduction systems. Specifically, he is combining techniques in live-cell imaging, X-ray crystallography, biochemistry, and mathematical modeling to decipher the mechanisms of bacterial type III effector proteins from human pathogens including Salmonella, Shigella, and enteropathogenic E. coli. His recent work has not only identified novel mechanisms by which bacteria rewire the communication systems of host cells, but has also explained how dynamic interspecies interactions can be regulated in space and time. According to Dr. Michael Norgard, Department Chair at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Alto is off to an amazing start and his “studies have already had significant impact on multiple fields including microbial pathogenesis, human cell biology, and systems biology.” Ultimately, Alto hopes that by gaining a deep understanding of the molecular interactions involved in host pathogen relationships, he will identify new approaches for development of anti-microbial therapeutics.
Even though Alto’s career is just beginning, he has already been awarded many top honors including the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease, the Hartwell Foundation’s Individual Biomedical Research Award, and the John Collier Award from the Gordon Conference. He has also been invited to speak at multiple events and his work has been published in major journals. Dr. Jeff Miller, University of California Los Angeles, concludes by saying “he embodies the essence of what the Merck Irving S. Sigal Award is attempting to identify in a young investigator and I expect him to be a highly influential scientific leader as his career progresses.”