High-Impact Gut-Fungi Research Receives UCLA CTSI Publication Award

Cedar-Sinai Medical Center researchers David Underhill, PhD and Iliyan Iliev, PhD received a UCLA CTSI Publication Award for research that showed an important link between intestinal fungi and inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis.

The research was published in the June 8, 2012 issue of Science.

CTSI Executive Director Steven M. Dubinett, MD and Cedars-Sinai CTSI Site Director Leslie Raffel, MD presented the award to Drs. Iliev and Underhill in November. Dr. Iliev was the lead author and Dr. Underwood was the senior author. 

"We put a lot of novel technology into the research and we are grateful for the CTSI's help," Dr. Iliev said. The award, he said, "inspires us to continue."

CTSI Publication Awards honor high-impact research that utilizes the resources of the CTSI. In 2011, Dr. Underhill received a $10,000 CTSI voucher for core services, which his team used to sequence and characterize fungal microbiomes in humans and mice.

Although scientists have known that fungi exist in the gut, "we're among the first to investigate what types, how many, and whether they're important in disease," said Dr. Underhill, an associate professor and director of the Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine at Cedar-Sinai. "We were truly stunned to see just how common fungi are, identifying more than 100 different types" and seeing linkages to digestive disorders.

An estimated 1.4 million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, a chronic digestive disorder.

To determine whether fungi contribute to inflammatory disease, the study focused on a protein called Dectin-1, which is produced by white blood cells and used by the immune system to detect and kill fungi. In a mouse model of the disease, researchers found that the protein is important in protecting against inflammation caused by indigenous fungi. The finding has significant implications for human disease, as a variant of the gene for Dectin-1 is strongly associated with severe forms of ulcerative colitis.

In addition to studying gut fungi in the mouse, Dr. Underhill and colleagues did pilot sequencing on two samples from humans and determined that people also harbor a rich and diverse fungal microflora. These data were used in successful grant applications to the NIDDK (R01DK093426; $2.5 million over four years) and to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (Senior Investigator Award; $350,000 over three years).

Further reading
Wired Science: Fungus inside us: A new health frontier?
Los Angeles Times: Inflammatory bowel, ulcerative colitis, linked to intestinal fungi
New York Times: Tending the body's microbial garden

Image caption: CTSI Clinical and Community Research Resources Program Leader, Leslie Raffel, MD (left) congratulates Publication Award recipient David Underhill, PhD (right)

Image source: Cedars-Sinai