UTSW researcher recognized with Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences

Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen

DALLAS – April 3, 2018 – UT Southwestern Medical Center Professor Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen today became the recipient of the 2018 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for his discovery of the cGAS enzyme, a sensor of innate immunity. The enzyme patrols the cell’s interior and sounds the alarm to trigger the immune system in response to DNA.

Dr. Chen’s discovery of the enzyme cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS) solved a century-old medical mystery. DNA was known to activate the immune system long before its role as a genetic material was understood. In 1908, a Nobel Laureate noted in his acceptance speech that surgeons in Europe treated patients with DNA to boost their patients’ defense against infections. Dr. Chen’s investigations revealed the mechanism underlying that response.

The award will be presented by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health on May 16 in Washington, D.C., in recognition of Dr. Chen’s “discovery of the cGAS enzyme and its DNA-sensing pathway and their impact on immune defense and autoimmune disease.” The prize includes a $100,000 honorarium made possible through a donation by philanthropist Ann Lurie.

“Dr. Chen’s work has advanced our understanding of the body’s immune defense system,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern, who holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science. “This award recognizes Dr. Chen as an outstanding scientist whose elegant research elucidates the fundamental mechanisms of innate immunity, the body’s first, generalized response to infection.”

“I’m deeply honored to be the recipient of this year’s Lurie Prize,” said Dr. Chen, a Professor of Molecular Biology with a secondary appointment in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense. “I was humbled when I learned the names of previous prize recipients. This huge honor is a testament to the talented students, postdocs, and staff scientists in my lab at UT Southwestern, whose dedication and hard work led to several original discoveries. It has been a privilege to work at such a great institution, where scientists are nurtured, discoveries are highly valued, and the leadership support is outstanding.”

Past recipients of the Lurie Prize include David M. Sabatini, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jeannie T. Lee, Harvard Medical School; Karl Deisseroth, Stanford University; Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley; and Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Yale School of Medicine.

The cGAS enzyme alerts the immune system when it senses DNA in the cell’s soupy interior, the cytoplasm, an area where DNA is not supposed to be. After sensing DNA in the cytoplasm, cGAS produces a small molecule called cyclic GMP-AMP (cGAMP), which functions as the messenger to the body’s first line of defense, the innate immune system.

“cGAS is like a burglar alarm, and cGAMP is like the electric signal generated by the burglar alarm. This burglar alarm system is turned on when a danger is detected,” said Dr. Chen, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Director of the Center for Inflammation Research at UT Southwestern.

When cGAS sounds the alarm for foreign DNA, it sets off the body’s defense against viruses, bacteria, or parasites. When the alarm is sounded for the body’s own DNA that has somehow leaked into the cytoplasm, the result can be autoimmune disease, such as lupus, he explained.

Since first identified at UT Southwestern in 2012, the cGAS DNA-sensing pathway is now known to be involved in the body’s response to several inflammatory diseases as well as to infections caused by many viruses and retroviruses. More recent research in the Chen laboratory is pursuing the pathway’s involvement in cancer, cellular aging, and autoimmune diseases.

Raised in Anxi County, China, Dr. Chen received his B.S. degree in biology at Fujian Normal University and then earned a scholarship to study in the United States, which led to a Ph.D. in biochemistry from State University of New York at Buffalo.

A member of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense led by Dr. Bruce Beutler, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on innate immunity, Dr. Chen holds the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science. Dr. Beutler holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research, in Honor of Laverne and Raymond Willie, Sr.

Dr. Chen’s honors have multiplied since his arrival at UT Southwestern in 1997 and include the Searle Scholar Award (1998), The Welch Foundation Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research (2005), the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Science by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (2007), National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology (2012), and the ASBMB-Merck Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2015). Dr. Chen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2014.

The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health creates and manages alliances with public and private institutions in support of the mission of the NIH, the world’s premier medical research agency.

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, 17 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.