Chen Awarded Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for Breakthrough Discovery

Zhijian “James” Chen, PhD, has proudly been recognized by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for his breakthrough discovery of the enzyme cyclic GMP-AMP synthase and its corresponding pathway. He will receive the 2018 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences during the FNIH Award Ceremony to be held on May 16 in Washington, DC.

Zhijian "James" Chen, PhD

Zhijian "James" Chen, PhD, has proudly been recognized by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) for his breakthrough discovery of the enzyme cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS) and its corresponding pathway. He will receive the 2018 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences during the FNIH Award Ceremony to be held on May 16 in Washington, DC.

In a statement, Chen expressed his gratitude and dedicated the award to his team, "This honor belongs to a team of talented and dedicated scientists and students in my lab, who have worked hard to make original discoveries. The Lurie Prize is special in that it has the implicit expectation for the recipients, who are in their mid-careers, to continue to make new discoveries. This is most encouraging and empowering."

Prior to Chen's discovery, little was understood about the cellular process that took place in order for DNA to stimulate immune responses to fight infections. In 2012, Chen and his team revealed that the cGAS enzyme detects DNA as a danger signal to stimulate both immune and inflammatory responses.

After entering a cell's cytoplasm and binding itself to a virus’s DNA, the cGAS enzyme becomes activated and creates a molecule called cyclic GMP-AMP (cGAMP). This molecule instructs the immune system to fight the virus.

Chen's revelation of this cellular process has enabled scientists to better understand how the body not only attacks viruses, such as the Herpes virus and HIV, but also other pathogens that harbor DNA. He also uncovered that the cGAS enzyme, when it binds to one’s DNA and the pathway becomes hyperactive, can trigger autoimmune diseases.

Therapies that target this pathway could lead to curative treatments or even the prevention of autoimmune disease, infectious disease, and even some cancers.

"We are proud to honor Dr Chen with the 2018 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for the discovery of the cGAS enzyme and pathway andtheir unique role in immune and inflammatory response," said Maria C. Freire, PhD, president and executive director of the FNIH, in a statement. "Dr Chen joins 5 other Lurie Prize winners, who are shaping the future of human health through their profound biomedical research."

Chen is the current George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science and a professor of molecular biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He also serves as an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

His selection for the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences was based on the decision of 6 distinguished biomedical researchers. As part of his award, he will receive a $100,000 honorarium donated by philanthropist Anne Lurie to the FINH. Lurie is the president of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation and the president of Lurie Holdings, Inc.

"We are pleased to recognize Dr Chen with this year's Lurie Prize in Biomedical Science for his formative research and its effects on a wide-range of areas, from autoimmune disease to cancer," praised Lurie in a statement. "Through the Lurie Prize, each year we strive to empower young biomedical researchers so that they can continue advancing discoveries that can improve the quality of people's lives. This, in turn, we hope will inspire young students to participate in STEM so that some of them may one day be the next generation of Lurie Prize recipients."