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UT Southwestern biochemist Zhijian ‘James’ Chen to receive prestigious Horwitz Prize

James” Chen, Ph.D. Horitz Prize
Zhijian "James" Chen, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Biology who holds the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science at UT Southwestern, is one of the world's top researchers on innate immunity.

DALLAS – Sept. 20, 2023 – Zhijian “James” Chen, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular Biology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, has been awarded the 2023 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize in recognition of his groundbreaking work on innate immunity.

The Horwitz Prize is presented by Columbia University in recognition of outstanding contributions in basic research in the fields of biology or biochemistry. Nearly half of the scientists who have received the Horwitz Prize over the past 56 years subsequently were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen honors and awards:

  • Elected to National Academy of Medicine (2022)
  • William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology (2020)
  • Switzer Prize (2019)
  • Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2019)
    For his discovery of the cGAS enzyme that launches the body’s immune defense against infections and cancers. The enzyme patrols the cell’s interior and sounds the alarm to trigger the immune system in response to DNA.
  • Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences (2018)
    For his discovery of the cGAS enzyme.
  • Elected to National Academy of Sciences (2014)
  • NAS Award in Molecular Biology (2012)
    For his elegant biochemistry both in elucidating an unsuspected role for polyubiquitin in a kinase-signaling cascade important for cancer and immunity and in discovering a novel link between innate immunity and MAVS, a mitochondrial membrane protein that forms prion-like polymers to trigger antiviral responses.

“I am very honored and humbled to join the ranks of Horwitz Prize awardees,” said Dr. Chen, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Director of the Center for Inflammation Research at UT Southwestern. “These are my scientific heroes. I didn’t expect to get this award.”

The prize consists of an honorarium and presentation as part of a lecture series at Columbia University in New York.

Dr. Chen, who received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2019, is one of the world’s top researchers on innate immunity – the body’s response to pathogens that quickly identifies and destroys cells and tissues that have been attacked.  

His discoveries include MAVS, the first mitochondrial protein known to be involved in immunity against infections. The protein’s name both describes its function (mitochondrial antiviral signaling) and honors his favorite basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. More recently, he identified cGAS (cyclic GMP-AMP synthase), which triggers the innate immune system when it detects foreign DNA inside a cell. He and his colleagues are now studying the complex biochemical pathways by which cGAS works.

Glen Barber, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of Cell Biology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, was also awarded the Horwitz Prize for his discovery of the STING molecule, another key to the body’s immune defense. Announcing the awards, Columbia said research on the cGAS-STING pathway by Drs. Chen and Barber has revealed the inner workings of innate immunity and paved the way for the development of new treatments for various diseases.

Dr. Chen is a member of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UTSW as well as the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Three UTSW researchers have won both the Horwitz award and the Nobel Prize.

Michael S. Brown, M.D., Professor of Molecular Genetics, and Joseph L. Goldstein, M.D., Chair and Professor of Molecular Genetics, won the Horwitz Prize in 1984 and shared the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the low density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor and its role in cholesterol metabolism.

The late Alfred Gilman, M.D., former Chair of Pharmacology, won the Horwitz Prize in 1989; in 1994, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of G-proteins and their role in signal transduction in cells.  

The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize was established by the late S. Gross Horwitz and honors his mother, the daughter of Samuel David Gross, M.D., a prominent 19th century surgeon. Since 1967, 110 researchers have won the award.

Dr. Brown is a Regental Professor and holds The W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.

Dr. Chen holds the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science.

Dr. Goldstein is a Regental Professor and holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl, Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine.

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 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 19 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 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 more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.