The ICIS Awards Committee have chosen Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, PhD, as one of the recipients of the 2018 Seymour & Vivian Milstein Award for Excellence in Interferon and Cytokine Research in recognition of her numerous contributions and impact on our understanding of immunology, inflammation, cytokine signaling and host-pathogen interactions. The field of innate immunity and inflammation has emerged as a central focus in biomedical research in recent years, and Dr. Kanneganti’s contributions are at an outstanding level and at the forefront of this research area.
Dr. Kanneganti is the Vice Chair of the Immunology Department and the Rose Marie Thomas Endowed Chair at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Her first major contribution to the field of innate immunity was the initial discovery of the role of the NLRP3 inflammasome in caspase-1 activation by microbial components (Nature 2006 Mar 9;440(7081):233-6). Her research identified the activation mechanisms of inflammasomes during infections and autoinflammatory diseases, and the crosstalk between several cell death pathways, namely pyroptosis, apoptosis and necroptosis. Using novel genetic mouse models and in-depth molecular and biochemical analyses, her lab has discovered distinct and previously unrecognized functions of the cytokines IL-1α, IL-1 and IL-33 and their signaling pathways in inflammatory diseases and cancer. Her lab has recently identified ZBP1/DAI as an innate sensor of influenza virus that triggers the NLRP3 inflammasome and programmed cell death pathways. Additionally, research from her lab discovered roles for NLRC3 in regulating PI3K signaling and for the cGAS-STING-IRF-GBP-IRGB10 pathway in liberating ligands that are eventually sensed by the AIM2 and NLRP3 inflammasomes. Her studies have contributed significantly to shaping our current understanding of the NLRs, inflammasomes, interferons, and cytokines of the IL-1 family in all areas of immunology. Dr. Kanneganti is well known for her many original and critically important contributions to our understanding of how the innate immune system recognizes and responds to pathogens and how genetic mutations in innate immunity affect the development of infectious, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases in humans.
Dr. Kanneganti’s story is compelling and her achievements remarkable. Dr. Kanneganti grew up in modest circumstances in India. She was an exceptional student, ultimately receiving a Ph.D. and the Jawaharial Nehru Award for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis, a competitive award only conferred on 18 Ph.D. doctoral graduates in all of India. Her early efforts focused on understanding plant pathogens and toxins relevant to her region. This led her to question general principles related to how all organisms respond to pathogens, inflammation, and to move to one of the best laboratories in the United States to study this.
Dr. Kanneganti’s ascendance, as she has moved through her post-doctoral studies to a junior faculty position at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to her current position as the Vice-Chair of Immunology and Member (equivalent of Full Professor) in the Department of Immunology, has been phenomenal. Most recently, she received the Rose Marie Thomas Endowed Chair, the highest honor faculty at St. Jude can receive. She is currently the Chair of the NIH Innate Immunity and Inflammation study section and has received the 2015 Vince Kidd Mentor of the Year Award. The American Association of Immunologists (AAI) has recognized her contributions to the field of immunology by selecting her for the AAI-BD Biosciences Investigator Award in 2015, and she also received the Society for Leukocyte Biology (SLB) Dolph O. Adams award, the Eli Lilly and Company-Elanco Research Award from the American Association of Microbiology (ASM) and was recently elected to the Society of Mucosal Immunology Board of Councilors and Telengana Academy of Sciences.