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UT Southwestern researcher wins NIH Director’s Award to study the inner workings of glial cells in the brain

DALLAS – Oct. 5, 2021 – Lu Sun, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at UT Southwestern, has been awarded $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study interactions between neurons and glial cells in the brain, which could provide insight into the causes of neurological disorders.   

Photo of Lu Sun, Ph.D.
Lu Sun, Ph.D.

The New Innovator Award is part of nearly $9 million in highly competitive NIH Director’s Awards received by UT Southwestern researchers today from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Program, which supports scientists pursuing highly innovative research with the potential to have a broad impact on biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences.

“People often think of the nervous system as a whole bunch of neurons talking to each other, but the more we learn about glia, the more we see their important roles in keeping the brain healthy or triggering diseases such as Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum disorder, or multiple sclerosis,” explained Dr. Sun, an Investigator in the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. “To really understand how the nervous system operates in health and disease, we need a good understanding of these supporting cells.”

Although numerous studies have scrutinized the inner workings of either neurons or glia, Dr. Sun said, little is known about the molecular mechanisms these cells use to communicate with each other. His New Innovator project continues ongoing work in his lab focused on teasing out these interactions, concentrating on a subset of glia called oligodendrocytes. These cells are the sole producers of myelin, the fatty sheaths that cover the extensions of neurons called axons and provide insulation for the electrical signals that travel down axons and trigger the release of messages that neurons send to each other and other types of cells.

Dr. Sun is a Southwestern Medical Foundation Scholar in Biomedical Research. Now in its 23rd year, the Endowed Scholars Program in Medical Science provides generous financial support over four years to newly appointed tenure-track assistant professors at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Funded by private endowment, the Endowed Scholars Program has launched the research careers of 112 investigators.

UT Southwestern rates No. 1 among global institutions in the health care sector in the 2021 Nature Index for its published research, as well as among the top 20 U.S. institutions overall for published research in life sciences journals.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center 

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 25 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,800 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 117,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 3 million outpatient visits a year.