It’s not all that often scientists, within the field of biology, discover a new cellular process, but Vojo Deretic, Ph.D., can speak directly from experience on how that feels, and he will as he shares the breakthrough and central importance of autophagy with colleagues, researchers, and the community during the Annual Research Lecture (ARL) that will be held Thursday, March 30 at 5:30 p.m., at the Domenici Auditorium.

Deretic is director of the Autophagy, Inflammation and Metabolism (AIM) Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE), chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at The University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Medicine, and the most recent recipient of the University’s 67th ARL award.

"The diversity and breadth of the research areas and people recognized by the ARL is breathtaking. Our most recent recipient, Vojo Deretic, is no exception," - Ellen Fisher, UNM Vice President for Research

The ARL is one of the highest honors UNM bestows on its faculty in recognition of their creative research activity.

“Looking back on the history of the ARL gives me a great sense of pride in the Lobo research community. Over the many years of the ARL’s history, we see a rich narrative of honoring and celebrating research and scholarly activity. The diversity and breadth of the research areas and people recognized by the ARL is breathtaking. Our most recent recipient, Vojo Deretic, is no exception,” said Ellen Fisher, UNM Vice President for Research.

The distinguished professor received his undergraduate, doctorate, and postdoctoral education in Belgrade, Paris, and Chicago. Deretic’s career in medicine began at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Shortly after, he took a position at University of Michigan where he spent five years, before ultimately landing in Albuquerque and at the University he’s called home for the past 22 years.

“All of my successes, the real contributions to science have happened here at The University of New Mexico,” Dr. Deretic said.

Deretic specializes in tuberculosis, HIV, microbiology, immunology, and most importantly within the field of autophagy. His core contributions to science come from studies surrounding the role of autophagy (from the Greek meaning “self-eating”) in infection and immunity. There are only a handful of scientists from around the world who contributed to the making of this new field of autophagy and Deretic is one of them. Autophagy is a complex process and remains a hyperactive part of research that’s getting closer to translation. The discovery of autophagy and the role it’s played in science has led to a Nobel Prize.

Have you ever felt hungry but didn’t have any food at your disposal? At that moment all the cells in your body have the ability to self-feed and sustain themselves by eating small parts of their interiors, ultimately providing energy and nutrients until your next meal. This is autophagy in its simplest form.

“If a person restricts food intake, the body does not immediately cease functioning and die; instead, it starts to break down its own nutritional reserves. Fat cells unfortunately do not always go first, and ultimately even muscle cells are broken up and fed to the metabolic fires to keep essential processes running,” Deretic said.

Deretic and other scientists have spent the last few decades learning just how important the process of autophagy is in relation to other scientific fields. Deretic says not only is autophagy central in understanding how cells in the body work, but how they could lead to the design of new drugs within the medical field.

Deretic’s work on autophagy in immunity coincides with the beginnings of the appreciation of autophagy’s role in human health. Deretic’s team is one of those that made the discovery that autophagy is a major effector and regulator of immunity. Within the last 10 years, Deretic’s colleagues have attested to the role that he has played in developing this field, including the first recognition of the broadly integrated role of autophagy in immunity, as well as the most recent summaries of the role of autophagy in immunity and inflammation.

“At the University of Michigan, I was studying the immune aspects of infectious disease including tuberculosis and cystic fibrosis. I had multiple strong projects, but they weren’t breakthroughs like the work I did within the autophagy field. Those projects were lateral developments,” Deretic said. “Once I came to New Mexico, the process of autophagy was just beginning to come into play, and I was perfectly positioned with thinking that it could defend against pathogens when they get into the cells. That was one of the earliest contributions, then all these immunological functions of autophagy exploded.”

However, Deretic credits so much of his success to his fellow colleagues and research teams.

“I think it’s important to recognize that along the way, I didn’t do this alone. I had trainees and colleagues right beside me,” he said. “Throughout my career, one thing that has been great is that so many of my trainees are now faculty and colleagues both here at The University of New Mexico School of Medicine, around the country, and internationally. It gives me joy to see them independently grow in their own fields and celebrate their own successes.”

“We are all so proud of your accomplishments in research, and the way you mentor and demonstrate team science and team building. Thank you. I continue to learn so much from you and be inspired by you.” - Dr. Douglas Ziedonis, Executive Vice President for UNM Health Sciences

Outside of his major contributions to science, Deretic loves to scuba dive and is a Cessna pilot active within the recreational pilot community in Albuquerque. He has traveled around the world to places including Cusco, Peru; Kyoto, Japan; Florence, Italy and right at the top of his list, as a very special city, is Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“The one thing all these places have in common is their unique and fascinating cultures,” Deretic said. “Santa Fe is one of my favorite cities in the world. I have never felt at home in any place that I’ve lived, but I feel at home here in New Mexico and that makes working here even more enjoyable.”

Deretic’s lecture, “Autophagy: The Double Membrane in Immunity and Beyond” is dedicated to his wife, Dr. Dusanka Deretic, and long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Beth Levine – who died prematurely – but worked alongside Deretic to develop the aspect of autophagy in the context of immunology.

“If there is one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s not what you do, but the way you think while doing it,” Deretic said. “Throughout my time in New Mexico, I have felt obliged to give back to this state and all the people in it, and I really hope through my work I’ve done just that.”