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Phil Sahm

Public Relations Specialist, Office of Public Affairs

Jun 13, 2013 2:55 PM

Woman looking in microscope

(SALT LAKE CITY)—For the second consecutive year, a University of Utah School of Medicine faculty member has been selected as a prestigious Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences.

June Round, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pathology who studies the role of commensal bacteria – microbes that colonize by the trillions in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract and are increasingly being shown to provide health benefits – is one of 22 of the nation’s “most promising young scientists” to receive the 2013 award, which the Pew Charitable Trust bestows annually. The scholarship comes with an award of $240,000 given over four years, for Round to pursue research into how signaling to immune cells is key to making the body tolerant of commensal bacteria instead of mounting a defense to kill it. 

“The Pew Scholars program gives innovative scientists both the freedom to take calculated risks and the resources to pursue the most promising, but untried, avenues for scientific breakthroughs,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of Pew.

When foreign pathogens attack the human body, the immune system ramps up a defense to destroy the invaders through inflammation, white blood cells and other means. Yet, the immune system allows commensal bacteria, also known as microbiota, to colonize and thrive in the GI tract. It has been unclear why the immune system let microbiota persist, but the reason is becoming clear as researchers find evidence that commensal bacteria benefits human health. In her prior research Round, for example, has shown that one commensal microbe, Bacteriodes fragiles, confers protection from inflammatory diseases when it colonizes in a host organism.  

She will use her Pew Scholar money to investigate whether toll-like receptors (TLRs), which are proteins that play a key role in the immune system by recognizing foreign microbes, help make a host organism tolerant to microbiota by sending signals to immune cells. As part of her research, Round will transplant specific commensal bacteria into germfree mice to investigate how TLR signaling influences immune system signaling and the structure of commensal microbes.

Ultimately, her work can uncover the importance of “good” bacteria in the body and identify the mechanisms the immune system uses to maintain communities of commensal bacteria. 

“The microbes on our bodies have been present since the inception of man, and we have therefore evolved a dependence on them for our development. I am hoping to begin to identify who these organisms are so that we can use them to increase human health,” says Round.

To be considered for a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences award, applicants from all areas of physical and life sciences related to biomedical study must be nominated by an invited institution and demonstrate both excellence and innovation in their research. This year, 179 institutions asked to nominate a candidate and 134 eligible nominations were received.

Last year, U of U School of Medicine faculty member, Nels C. Elde, Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics, was named a 2012 Pew Scholar. Elde studies how the struggle between pathogens and cells has influenced human evolution.

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The University of Utah Health Sciences programs are internationally regarded for their research and clinical expertise in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and health. Through the School of Medicine and Colleges of Pharmacy, Health, and Nursing, the University of Utah health sciences faculty conduct pioneering research in the genetics of disease, regenerative medicine, drug compounds, cancer, nutrition, and other areas. In addition, the Health Sciences programs also train many Utah physicians, pharmacists, nurses, therapists, and other health-care professionals.