Molecular biologist win prestigious Hackerman Award

Although he is only 38, UT Southwestern researcher Dr. Zhijian "James" Chen has successfully challenged conventional thinking in science, opening up new realms of possibility by changing the way the world views molecular function.

Dr. Chen, associate professor of molecular biology, was honored in January with the 2005 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research for his work.

The Robert A. Welch Foundation, one of the nation's oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry, presents the $100,000 award annually to honor up-and-coming scientists at Texas institutions who are 40 years old or younger. Recipients are recognized for expanding the frontiers of chemistry through their innovative research endeavors.

Created in 2001, the award pays tribute to Dr. Norman Hackerman, longtime chairman of the foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. The fourth recipient of the award, Dr. Chen received a $100,000 check and crystal sculpture at a luncheon on the UT Southwestern campus.

Dr. Xiaodong Wang, another UT Southwestern scientist, received the 2003 award for his research on programmed cell death. Dr. Wang, professor of biochemistry, holds the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science.

"Dr. Chen has made seminal discoveries in biochemistry that will go a long way toward advancing chemistry and improving life, primary goals of the foundation," said Welch Foundation Chairman Richard J.V. Johnson. "The fact that he is the second young chemist from UT Southwestern to be recognized with the Hackerman Award is a testament to the university and the talented faculty it attracts."

Dr. Chen uses rigorous biochemical testing to unravel complex problems in the lab. His most substantial discovery has been uncovering an unanticipated second function of a small protein called ubiquitin. Known as the "Kiss of Death" for its role in targeting other proteins for destruction, ubiquitin was thought to have only one molecular function. Through his meticulous biochemical methods, Dr. Chen discovered ubiquitin's role in activating proteins. The idea, initially controversial, has now become widely accepted.

"Ubiquitin has two functions - protein degradation and regulation; [Nobel laureate] Avram Hershko discovered one; James Chen discovered the other," said Dr. Eric Olson, chairman of molecular biology. Dr. Olson, director of the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Center for Basic Research in Cancer and the Nearburg Family Center for Basic Research in Pediatric Oncology, holds the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science.

Dr. Hackerman said, "Dr. Chen's paradigm-shifting discovery of this unanticipated function has tremendous implications. We must now re-examine whether some of the millions of molecules we think have a single purpose are in fact polyfunctional."

Other discoveries include the isolation and cloning of an important enzyme in the ubiquitin pathway, E2-25K, also known as HIP2. The enzyme is believed to play a role in Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases. Dr. Chen also has developed assays to identify and optimize the proteasome inhibitor Velcade, a medicine recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat multiple myeloma. He was also the first to show that ubiquitin-dependent degradation of a protein triggers an important immune defense pathway. Last year, his lab became the first to reconstitute the T-cell signaling pathway in vitro using purified proteins. The research is helping immunologists better understand and treat human diseases.

"I am deeply honored to receive this prestigious award, particularly so early in my career when I still have so much ahead of me yet to learn, discover and accomplish," Dr. Chen said. "I feel very fortunate to have contributed to this field, been recognized for my work and have had such wonderful guidance from the talented people I've worked and studied with through the years."

Raised in a remote village in southern China, Dr. Chen received his undergraduate degree from Fujian Normal University in 1985 and a doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1991. He completed postdoctoral work at the Salk Institute in San Diego in 1992 before entering the private sector.

A member of the Department of Molecular Biology at UT Southwestern since 1997, he conducts research, teaches and is actively involved in student and postdoctoral committees.

Since its inception in 1954, the Houston-based Welch Foundation has provided $520 million in support of science, primarily in Texas. Besides the Hackerman Award, the foundation also funds a research grant program; an annual research conference; grants to chemistry departments at small- and medium-sized educational institutions in the state; 42 academic chairs in chemistry; a visiting lecture series by prominent chemists; and a summer scholar research program for high school students. The foundation also bestows the annual Welch Award in Chemistry to honor chemists across the globe for lifetime contributions to basic research.