The annual award recognizes a scientific breakthrough or critical medical insight made within the past five years by a Cedars-Sinai faculty member. It was presented Aug. 31 during an online Faculty Forum chaired by Shlomo Melmed, MB, ChB, executive vice president of Academic Affairs and dean of the Medical Faculty.
Underhill, professor of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine, is an internationally renowned expert in innate immunity, the body's inborn immune system that responds to pathogens and other foreign substances. His highly influential research ranges from fungal immunity to the role of the mycobiome—the fungal community in and on the body—in inflammation.
The PRISM certificate in particular cited Underhill's novel deployment of basic and translational technologies enabling “visualization” of the gut mycobiome, revealing pathways by which fungi contribute to severe phenotypes of inflammatory bowel disease. It further noted these discoveries have implications for novel concepts for precision approaches in inflammatory bowel disease and other inflammatory disorders.
"Dr. Underhill's findings have catalyzed intensive interest in the fungal/mucosal interface in health and disease," said Stephan Targan, MD, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute, who nominated Underhill for the award. "His elegant series of studies were the first to demonstrate the impact of a specific microenvironmental fungus. Importantly, his work opened up the mycobiome as a novel source of targets for therapeutic development in inflammatory diseases."
“It is an honor to receive this prize and wonderful to get such recognition from my peers," Underhill said. "I am thrilled to be included among past —and future— PRISM winners."
Among Underhill's contributions are discovering that the ubiquitous yeast Malassezia is more frequent in patients with Crohn's disease. He further demonstrated that a common Crohn’s disease-linked variation in the gene for the protein CARD9, which is involved in immunity to fungi, causes immune cells from patients to generate higher levels of proinflammatory molecules in response to Malassezia.
Currently, Underhill and collaborators are poised to begin a clinical trial to test a selected antifungal agent for effectiveness against Malassezia in Crohn's patients who carry genetic variations involving CARD9. It will be among the first trials in a genotyped and biomarker-stratified population in inflammatory bowel disease.
Underhill was founding director of the Cedars-Sinai Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences and Translational Medicine, now known as the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and received the 2017 Distinguished Leadership in Graduate Research Education Award. Most recently, he served as interim chair of Biomedical Sciences before being appointed chair on June 30. His research has been published in Cell Host & Microbe, Cell, Science, Nature and other highest journals.
Introduced by Leon Fine, MD, emeritus chair of Biomedical Sciences, the PRISM award, established in 2015, is based on faculty nominations and a decision by external experts. Winners receive a monetary prize and a commemorative medal. Previous recipients include Paul W. Noble, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine and director of the Women's Guild Lung Institute; the late Ronald G. Victor, MD, professor of Medicine and associate director of the Smidt Heart Institute; Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, professor of Neurosurgery; Robert H. Baloh, MD, PhD, professor of Neurology and director of Neuromuscular Medicine; and Stanley C. Jordan, MD, professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Nephrology.