David Engman, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and microbiology-immunology and director of the Northwestern Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, the eldest of three children. An avid musician and active in sports, he came to Northwestern University as an undergrad and found a sustaining passion for research in the Morimoto Lab. Upon graduation, Engman enrolled in the (MSTP) at the University of Iowa and graduated in 1990 with a focus on genetics.
Today, Engman is respected scientist, serving as an established investigator and fellow of the American Heart Association (AHA), a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a Member of the Pluto Society of Academic Pathologists. He has been honored with the Amgen Outstanding Investigator of the American Society of Investigative Pathology, and has been named a finalist for the George Joost Teacher of the Year Award at Feinberg for basic science teaching every year since the mid-1990s – his most proud and most gratifying accomplishment.
When not at Feinberg, Engman, his wife Luz, and their two young children enjoy typical young family activities, especially those involving Buzz Lightyear, princesses, or ice cream. Engman’s personal hobbies remain music and sports, and he has set a goal to win men’s 50-and-over tennis tournaments when he becomes eligible later this year.
Q: What brought you to Feinberg?
A: When I was a senior MSTP student, I had the option of a traditional residency and fellowship training at other top-ranked pathology departments. I chose to come to Northwestern to pursue a unique opportunity to establish an independent research laboratory and do residency in clinical pathology on a part-time basis. I was 28 years old when I started. This opportunity is similar to that supported by the new National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Early Independence Award, which permits new PhD graduates to start research labs without having completed a postdoctoral fellowship.
Because I had not done a postdoc, I established a close collaboration and friendship with Steve Miller, PhD, Judy Gugenheim Research Professor of Microbiology/Immunology, who served as co-investigator on my initial grant applications. This strategy worked: in just over a year, I had a staff of one postdoc, three graduate students, and a talented technologist and now lab manager Cheryl Olson, who has been my partner in research for 20 years.
Our first extramural research funding came in fall 1990 as part of Richard Pope’s Multipurpose Arthritis Center, and we began securing local and NIH research grants shortly after.
Q: What are your research interests?
A: I am interested in science at every level. Over the years, my favorite topics have been transposable elements, planetary science, mitochondrial biogenesis, and molecular mechanisms of human disease.
My research lab has studied various aspects of molecular genetics, cell biology, and pathogenetic mechanisms of trypanosomes – single-celled eukaryotic parasites that cause African sleeping sickness – and Chagas disease. My lab is roughly divided into two halves, with one focusing on the biogenesis of eukaryotic cilia, membrane dynamics, trafficking, and signaling, and the other focusing on the pathogenesis of and drug discovery for trypanosomiasis. During the past three years, through collaborations, we have expanded our research into mechanisms of pathogen tissue tropism and transendothelial migration of both lymphocytes and parasites.
Overall, though, I have a lifelong love of trypanosomes. They are fascinating cells in their complex structures and life cycles involving human and insect hosts, mechanisms of proliferation and differentiation, and especially their varied strategies for evading the host immune response. African sleeping sickness is essentially cancer – unregulated proliferation of eukaryotic cells (trypanosomes) in the blood which can reach parasitemias of a billion per milliliter. Interestingly, these eukaryotic pathogens are highly susceptible to a number of cancer chemotherapies. We have had surprising success approaching this hematologic infection as leukemia.
Q: What is the ultimate goal of your research?
A: The long-term applied goal of our research is to develop vaccines and effective new drugs for trypanosomiasis, which causes tremendous morbidity and death among millions. I have considered moving into malaria vaccine development for some time and still hope to do this.
The more readily achievable goals, however, involve understanding how cell structures form and function at the most fundamental levels. How are discrete surface membrane domains established and maintained? How does a cell sense its environment and make structural and physiologic modifications to adapt to that environment? For trypanosomes, there are special challenges, since they need to thrive in a low temperature insect (midgut, hindgut, or salivary gland) and a higher temperature human (bloodstream, extracellular matrix, or inside a host cell), and make proliferation and differentiation decisions along the way and avoid host immune clearance.
A second goal is to understand how and why the American trypanosome induces cardiac autoimmunity during infection and the relative roles of anti-parasite and anti-self immunity in Chagas disease pathogenesis.
A final goal that has occupied nearly half of my professional life is training the next generation of scientists and physician-scientists. I have had the good fortune to train dozens of students and postdocs and to mentor 89 MD-PhD graduates and 98 current MSTP students as director of the Northwestern MSTP program. In addition, as one of the longest serving MD-PhD program directors in the country (I was appointed when I was 33), I have had the privilege of leading our National MD-PhD program association and chairing the MD-PhD section of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Q: How is your research funded?
A: Our research is primarily funded by NIH R01 grants on flagellum structure/function, Chagas disease, and autoimmune myocarditis. Nearly all of my students and postdocs have received individual fellowships from the NIH or AHA, or have been appointed to training grants. We have maintained a group of approximately 10 to 15 scientists on two to four research grants, plus fellowships. Other funding sources for our group include the American Cancer Society, Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, Arthritis Foundation, Merck & Co., and Abbott Laboratories.
Q: What types of collaborations or research teams are you engaged in across campus (and beyond)? What are the challenges and benefits?
A: I believe that the successful scientist of today has both independent and collaborative research. I have a number of collaborators at Northwestern and at other institutions, such as the University of Texas at El Paso, the Pasteur Institute, and University of California – Irvine.
At Feinberg, I am part of a new research partnership with Conrad Epting. Conrad and I have formed a true scientific team; we co-advise all of our students and fellows, have mostly joint research projects, hold joint group meetings, and a host joint Engman-Epting Lab web site.
The benefits outweigh the challenges: Our group of 16 scientists has two advisers, and our teams work together on grant applications and papers. Among a dozen papers we published in 2009-2010, Conrad was co-author on six and corresponding author on two; if he were not part of our team, he may not have published so early in his professorship. The challenge, of course, is to assure Conrad develops his own independent research for promotion and tenure. To that end, I am happy to say that two of the most exciting projects in our group now are his. We believe that our approach to career development, an assistant professor having significant clinical duties, can serve as a model for others.