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UT Southwestern researcher wins NIH Director’s Award to study how DNA’s 3D structure affects health and disease

DALLAS – Oct. 5, 2021 – Jian Zhou, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in UT Southwestern’s Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics, has been awarded $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use artificial intelligence to investigate the three-dimensional structure of DNA and its impact on health.

Photo of Jian Zhou, Ph.D.
Jian Zhou, 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.

“I’m very grateful that I was chosen for this award,” said Dr. Zhou, who joined UTSW in 2019. “It’s a significant investment in furthering our understanding of the genomic sequence.”

Rather than a flat string of base pairs, DNA is a three-dimensional structure that interacts with itself and various proteins. Normal variations and pathological mutations on this structure can vastly change these interactions in ways that scientists have only just started to understand. Dr. Zhou, a Lupe Murchison Foundation Scholar in Medical Research, has developed computational tools to better understand the interactions that underlie the organization of chromatin – the three-dimensional complex that forms when chromosomal DNA is wrapped around protein spools called histones. More recently, he developed additional computational tools to analyze changes in gene expression at the single-cell level that may contribute to kidney disease.

The groundbreaking work Dr. Zhou has undertaken at UTSW – inventing entirely new ways to computationally analyze large biological datasets – isn’t often funded by the NIH because the research has little precedent, making it a perfect fit for the New Innovator Award.

UT Southwestern’s Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics was established in 2015 with a $25 million gift from Dallas entrepreneur and philanthropist Lyda Hill. UTSW has since invested millions more in its Biomedical High Performance Computing facility, a Bioinformatics Core Facility, and 19 faculty members.

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.