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2018 FNIH Lurie Prize awarded for DNA immune response discovery


The Foundation of the National Institutes of Health has awarded Zhijian “James” Chen, PhD, the 2018 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for his discovery of the cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS) enzyme, according to a statement released Tuesday, April 3.

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

While scientists have known for some time that DNA had a role in activating the immune response, the specifics of the process eluded explanation.

Dr. Zhijian Chen the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science and professor of molecular biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

Dr. Zhijian Chen

“A key gap in our understanding was the sensor that detects DNA, and so we set out to try to fill in this gap,” Dr. Chen explained in a phone interview. “We utilized a biochemical approach to identify the DNA sensor and eventually identify cGAS.”

Through their work, Dr. Chen and his team uncovered that cGAS was the enzyme used to spark the reaction.

“[cGAS] is a protein sensor that detects DNA as a danger signal that then triggers the immune response,” said Dr. Chen. “When DNA gets into the cytoplasm, cGAS becomes activated and catalyzes the synthesis of a small molecule, called cGAMP, which then functions as a messenger that activates the immune response pathway.”

While the cGAS enzyme can help defend against infectious disease or cancer, the enzyme can also trigger autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

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