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Phillips honored with ASBMB’s prestigious Tabor Research Award

Smiling woman with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a blue and gray plaid shirt sitting in front of a large computer monitor with molecular diagrams in black, pink and green on the screen.
Margaret Phillips, Ph.D.

Margaret Phillips, Ph.D., Chair and Professor of Biochemistry, has been selected to receive the Herbert Tabor Research Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). The Society’s highest honor, the Tabor Award recognizes outstanding, innovative accomplishments in biological chemistry and molecular biology as well as contributions to the scientific community.

“This award is particularly special to me because the late Herbert Tabor, M.D., was the father of polyamine research, a field that I have worked in since I was a graduate student,” said Dr. Phillips, who is also Professor of Pharmacology. “While editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), Herb edited many of the early papers from my lab. He was a great scientist, mentor, and educator, and it is a great pleasure to have won the award named in his honor.”

Dr. Tabor was recognized as the world’s foremost authority on the enzymatic pathways of polyamines, organic compounds that interact with DNA, RNA, and proteins. He served as editor-in-chief of JBC for 40 years and earned the distinction of longest-serving employee at the National Institutes of Health. He was a Senior Principal Investigator in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Laboratory of Biochemistry and Genetics at the time of his death in 2020 at age 101.

The Tabor Award includes a $30,000 research grant and travel expenses to present a plenary lecture at the 2024 ASBMB annual meeting in San Antonio in March 2024.

The Phillips Lab studies the biochemistry of the protozoan pathogens that cause malaria and human African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness – a disease caused by a parasite.

Dr. Phillips and her team identified malaria-specific inhibitors of the pyrimidine biosynthetic enzyme dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH), which is essential for the formation of the precursors needed to make DNA and RNA. This work led to the identification of DSM265, a compound that reached phase two clinical development for the treatment of malaria, validating DHODH as a drug target in malaria.

“Drug resistance is the major challenge to maintaining an arsenal of anti-malarial agents for treatment and prevention of malaria,” Dr. Phillips said. “In addition to targeting malarial DHODH for the development of new potential therapies, we are studying it as a model system to understand the molecular basis of drug resistance in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding of how to develop inhibitors with reduced risk of generating resistant parasites.”

In her work with trypanosomes, Dr. Phillips explored the fundamental roles of the polyamine biosynthetic enzymes in the parasite, demonstrating that all enzymes in the pathway are essential. She also identified novel regulatory mechanisms for two enzymes in the pathway that involve activation by pseudoenzymes – the catalytically dead ancestors of active enzymes – which contributed to a growing understanding of the importance of these pseudoenzymes in regulating cellular processes. Her work has opened the potential to identify species-selective inhibitors of these enzymes for drug discovery against sleeping sickness, she said.

Service to ASBMB and the scientific community is also an important component of the Tabor Award. A member of ASBMB since 1993, Dr. Phillips served on the JBC editorial board, chaired the Alice and C.C. Wang Award in Molecular Parasitology selection committee, and in 2022 was named an ASBMB Fellow.

In the broader research community, Dr. Phillips serves on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and PLOS Pathogens editorial boards and on the Malaria Drug Accelerator (MalDA) Scientific Advisory Board. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2021. A dedicated mentor of junior scientists, Dr. Phillips has trained 23 Ph.D. students and 16 postdocs in her lab.

Dr. Phillips earned her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry. She joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1992.

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