Biochemist honored as Blavatnik Award finalist

DALLAS – May 31, 2017 – UT Southwestern Medical Center biochemist Dr. Benjamin Tu, known for his work on the relationship between fundamental cellular processes and metabolism, today was named a finalist in the 2017 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists.

Dr. Benjamin Tu
Dr. Benjamin Tu

The awards, established by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in 2007 and administered by the New York Academy of Sciences, celebrate the excellence of outstanding early-career scientists and engineers from institutions across the United States. Dr. Tu, an Associate Professor of Biochemistry and a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research, is one of 10 finalists in Life Sciences. More than 300 nominations for the awards were submitted, and a total of 30 scientists were chosen as finalists across the three categories (10 in each category).

Singular Blavatnik Laureates from each category – Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry – will be announced in late June and receive $250,000 in unrestricted funds. All of the finalists will be honored at an event at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City this fall.

Dr. Tu recently published a study in Molecular Cell that determined cellular modifications in histones – a class of proteins that package DNA – serve an unexpected metabolic function. It was long known that modification of histones with small chemical marks, a process called chromatin methylation, helps to turn genes on and off. Mutations or translocations in the protein complexes that mark histones for methylation are implicated in a variety of diseases, including cancer.

The Tu laboratory identified chromatin methylation as important to the production of the amino acid cysteine, meaning methylation might be as important to metabolism as it is to gene expression and potentially opening a new area of investigation.

“Benjamin Tu is highly deserving of this recognition as an exceptional young scientist whose discoveries in metabolism and biochemistry have revealed how intracellular levels of intermediary metabolites coordinate cell growth and physiology,” said Biochemistry Chair Dr. Margaret Phillips, who is also Professor of Pharmacology and holds The Sam G. Winstead and F. Andrew Bell Distinguished Chair in Biochemistry.

“I am honored to receive this recognition and wish to thank all my mentors, colleagues, and trainees. In particular, I would like to thank my former postdoctoral advisor and recent Chair of Biochemistry, Dr. Steven McKnight, and the current Chair, Dr. Phillips, for their continual support. Their unwavering belief in my approach and vision has meant so much to me,” Dr. Tu said.

Dr. Tu’s research began in yeast and recently expanded to mammalian cells to understand how metabolism affects fundamental cellular processes. These mechanisms can be revealed by challenging cells under more demanding nutrient environments – a strategy that runs counter to the usual approach.

“Being in the Department of Biochemistry and at UT Southwestern has enabled me to take my research in directions I never anticipated from the start. I have enjoyed learning and working with many colleagues across campus with diverse areas of expertise,” Dr. Tu said.

Dr. Tu earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry at Harvard University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Tu joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2007 as an Endowed Scholar.

Dr. Tu’s honors include the AAAS/Science/GE Healthcare Young Scientist Regional Award, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, and the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The faculty of more than 2,700 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, 600,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 2.2 million outpatient visits a year.


Media Contact: Deborah Wormser

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