Award-Winning Research

Rosenstiel School scientist recognized for genomic approach to detecting fungal infections

VIRGINIA KEY, FL (September 1, 2005) — Rosenstiel School Assistant Scientist Dr. Mara R. Diaz is the first recipient of the Medical Mycological Society of Americas (MMSA)-Pfizer Medical Mycology Scholar award based on her unique approach to diagnosing common fungal infections. Dr. Diaz was presented this prestigious award this summer in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a new symposium jointly sponsored by the MMSA and the American Society for Microbiology.

MMSA and Pfizer developed the award to recognize promising scientists who have made a significant contribution to the field of medical mycology, the branch of biology that deals with pathogenic fungi. This award was created to promote and encourage junior scientists to disseminate their work in international scientific meetings.

As part of an NIH grant to Dr. Diaz and Dr. Jack Fell, their laboratory has been actively involved in developing a rapid and accurate DNA-molecular assay to identify medically important yeasts. To date, Dr. Diaz has developed over 80 species-specific and group-specific probes to identify pathogenic yeasts. Individuals with impaired immune systems are particularly at risk to develop invasive infections caused by these microorganisms, which usually progress rapidly and can involve various organs and systems, including the lungs, kidneys, and spleen.

Using Luminex's xMap®, a novel flow cytometer instrument capable of simultaneous sampling detection, Dr. Diaz has been able to adapt this technology to identify clinically important fungal pathogenic species. The technology uses a liquid suspension DNA-based assay with species-specific probes that are bound to the surface of color-coded beads. When a fungal sample is added to the liquid, its DNA complementary to the probe sequence will bind to the probe. Because this technology allows the concurrent combination of a 100 different color-coded bead sets, arrays can be developed for the simultaneous detection of up to 100 different species identifications in a single tube or well. This rapid method of detection will ultimately speed medical diagnoses and treatments allowing early intervention and reducing mortality, morbidity, and health care costs associated with the treatments of mycotic diseases. The ultimate goal is to develop a comprehensive kit that includes all medically important fungal species for routine clinical identifications. Toward this goal, two U.S. patents are underway.

Dr. Diaz's research interests include the genetic variability and population structure of opportunistic fungal pathogens and the development of molecular techniques for their identification. During the last three years she has been focusing much of her research efforts on this novel genomic approach to identifying medically important pathogenic species.

Dr. Diaz earned her bachelor's degree in biology and master's degree in marine sciences from the University of Puerto Rico and her doctoral degree in coastal oceanography at the Marine Sciences Research Center from State University of New York in Stony Brook.

Rosenstiel School is part of the University of Miami and, since its founding in the 1940s, has grown into one of the world's premier marine and atmospheric research institutions.

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Media Contacts:
Ivy Kupec, Communications Director
UM Rosenstiel School
305.421.4704 (o) 305.984.7107 (m)