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New Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Jarrod Fortwendel

Jarrod Fortwendel, PhD

Jarrod Fortwendel, PhDdm assistant professor in the  department of Clinical Pharmacy within the College of Pharmacy joined the faculty in July 2016. After completing his BS in Clinical Laboratory Science from Indiana State University in 1999, Dr. Forwendel received his PhD in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine from the University of Cincinnati in 2005. He completed his postdoctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati and Duke University.

Dr. Fortwendel’s research interest centers around understanding the mechanisms used by fungi to cause disease, specifically for the fungal pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus. On average, most people breathe in hundreds of Aspergillus spores every day without getting sick. This is due to strong pulmonary immunity. However, people with debilitated immune systems, like those undergoing treatment for specific cancers, are at a higher risk of developing Invasive Aspergillosis (IA). There is, unfortunately, a 50-90% mortality rate among those who develop IA.

“A major hurdle for successfully treating IA is that the fungal pathogen and the human host have very similar cellular physiology. Therefore, our current antifungal drugs can be quite toxic to patients,” said Dr. Fortwendel. “My research aims at understanding fundamental aspects of how the fungus invades lung tissue. Because the process of tissue invasion directly underpins virulence of A. fumigatus, we hope to use this knowledge to identify more effective drug targets.”

Dr. Fortwendel has been focusing on the pathogen since he was a graduate student. During his time at Duke, Dr. Fortwendel was awarded an NIH K22 Career Development Award to better understand mechanisms regulation Ras protein localization within Aspergillus cells. Proper localization is required for Ras function. Ras is a highly conserved signaling protein found in many cell types, form human to fungi. By focusing on Ras signaling networks, the Forwendel lab expects to uncover essential processes supporting growth in Aspergillus.

“We are now following up on those earlier studies by concentrating on the enzymes controlling Ras localization to see if they have potential as antifungal targets,” he said.

In a closely related project, Dr. Fortwendel is currently delineating fungal-specific aspects of Ras protein signaling.

“During earlier studies as a postdoctoral scientist at Duke, I discovered a novel domain in fungal Ras proteins that does not exist in human Ras proteins,” said Dr. Fortwendel. “My work showed that this fungal-specific protein domain is critical for Ras function in A. fumigatus. We are working to understand a precise mechanism, as it may define a new paradigm for the regulation of Ras signaling in pathogenic fungi. This, in turn, might allow us to target Ras proteins in Aspergillus while minimizing toxicity to humans.”

Dr. Fortwendel currently teaches in a Foundations of Pharmacy class at UTHSC, and will be contributing to the development of a Microbiology course for the College of Pharmacy. He is excited to be a member of a growing core of UTHSC researchers focused on fungal infections and is extremely interested in collaborating with other researchers to further understand host-pathogen interactions. His work is currently funded by an NIH NIAID R01 Research Project Grant.