Maurizio Del Poeta, MD
The research of Dr. Del Poeta focuses on the molecular mechanisms of microbial pathogenesis and, in particular, on the role and function of sphingolipids as mediators of fungal pathogenesis. Fungal infections are arising in immunocompromised patients, and, despite current antifungal therapies, mortality is high. New therapeutic methods are needed to effectively control these infections. Studies using the pathogenic fungal model Cryptococcus neoformans have allowed Dr. Del Poeta to propose a critical role for the fungal sphingolipid pathway in the regulation of the course and outcome of cryptococcosis. In particular, sphingolipids become important for fungal cell survival and growth especially after C. neoformans is inhaled into the lung. In this organ, microbial sphingolipids regulate the adaptation of fungal cells to the new environment. Some sphingolipids, such as glucosylceramides, allow fungal replication in the extracellular spaces (e.g. alveoli), whereas other sphingolipids, such as phytoceramides and inositol phosphoryl ceramides, protect the fungus against oxidative and acidic stresses once fungi are engulfed by host macrophages. Since the fungal sphingolipid pathway is biochemically different than the mammalian pathway, the understanding of the mechanisms by which sphingolipids protect fungal cells in the host may reveal new exciting possibilities for the development of alternative and more effective therapeutic strategies.