UT Southwestern biochemist honored with NIH Director's Pioneer Award

DALLAS - Sept. 29, 2004 - Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, is the recipient of a National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award, a new initiative designed to support exceptionally creative investigators.

Dr. Steven McKnight

The award, $500,000 per year for five years, is in its inaugural year and aims at encouraging investigators to take on creative, unexplored avenues of research that carry a relatively high potential for failure, but that also possess a greater chance for truly groundbreaking discoveries. It is one component of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which provides a framework of the NIH's priorities in identifying the most compelling opportunities in medical research.

Dr. McKnight - the only winner from Texas - is one of nine researchers in America to receive the new award. His research involves the regulation of transcription factors, the proteins that switch genes on and off.

"There is nothing about science that captivates me more than the sheer joy of adventure," said Dr. McKnight, who holds the Sam G. Winstead and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry and the Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Research. "To be judged by my peers as a pioneer is the highest accolade I could possibly imagine receiving. I'm on cloud nine to hear that I was selected to receive one of the inaugural Pioneer Awards from the National Institutes of Health."

One of the most significant turns Dr. McKnight took in his career was to move from his early work on transcription factors to the study of gene regulation in the brain. One of his current projects has led to the discovery of genes that control the body's internal clock and regulate such processes as sleep, wakefulness and hunger signals. Research in the McKnight lab has recently shown mutations in a class of genes related to these "clock" functions have a broad range of outcomes, from abnormal eating and sleeping patterns to signs of depression.

Studies of the genetic link to sleep patterns may help researchers better understand and treat insomnia and other sleep-related disorders, while a clearer picture of the relationship between circadian rhythms and depression might impact drug discovery in the treatment of potentially significant forms of mood disorder.

"Taking major risks and achieving momentous accomplishments have characterized Steve McKnight's career," said Dr. Kern Wildenthal, president of UT Southwestern. "His groundbreaking discoveries of the mechanisms responsible for controlling gene expression are truly worthy of this recognition by the NIH."

Dr. Alfred Gilman, Nobel laureate and interim dean of the UT Southwestern Medical School, said: "I am excited, very proud and pleased that this incredibly innovative scientist has won such a prestigious award."

Dr. McKnight is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He sits on the editorial boards of multiple peer-reviewed journals. He also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and on the board of trustees of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Dr. McKnight received his bachelor's degree from UT Austin. After completing his doctorate in biology from the University of Virginia, he joined the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he carried out his early work on gene regulation. Between his time at the Carnegie Institution and his arrival at UT Southwestern, Dr. McKnight co-founded and launched Tularik Inc., a biotechnology company located in San Francisco dedicated to the discovery of drugs that act through the regulation of gene expression.


Media Contact: Megha Satyanarayana
E-mail: megha.saty@utsouthwestern.edu

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