Advisory Committee

Zhijian Chen

Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Department of Molecular Biology
University of Texas Southwestern Medical School


Dr. Zhijian ‘James’ Chen is an Investigator of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Director of Inflammation Research Center, George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science and Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Chen has made a series of discoveries that have transformed our understanding of cell signaling and innate immunity. In 2000, he discovered the regulatory role of ubiquitination in protein kinase activation in the NF-kB and MAP kinase pathways. In 2005, he discovered the Mitochondrial Antiviral Signaling (MAVS) protein that reveals a new role of mitochondria in immunity. In 2012, Chen discovered cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS) as a cytosolic DNA sensor and a new cyclic di-nucleotide signaling pathway that mediate innate immune responses in animal cells. Chen was born in Anxi county, China, in 1966, and graduated from Fujian Normal University with a B.S. degree in biology in 1985. He received his PhD degree in Biochemistry from University of Buffalo in 1991. After his postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute and working in the biotech industry, He joined the faculty at UT Southwestern in 1997. For his work, Chen has received numerous honors including the National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology (2012), the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Merck Award (2015), the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences from the Foundation of NIH (2018), the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2019), the Switzer Prize (2019) and the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology (2020). Chen is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

Dr. Zhijian ‘James’ Chen’s laboratory is interested in the mechanisms of cell signaling, inflammation and innate immunity. Using classical biochemical fractionation and reconstitution, his lab has discovered several new mechanisms and signaling pathways that are important for animal cells to defend against microbial infections and other noxious insults. They found that the protein ubiquitin, which is best known for targeting protein degradation, plays an important role in activating protein kinases in inflammatory pathways through a proteolysis-independent mechanism. They discovered the mitochondrial protein MAVS and delineated its role and mechanism in immune defense against RNA virus infections. More recently, the Chen lab discovered the enzyme cyclic GMP-AMP synthase (cGAS) and showed that it is the cytosolic DNA sensor that activates the host immune system by producing a novel second messenger, cyclic GMP-AMP (cGAMP). They are further dissecting the MAVS and cGAS-cGAMP pathways with the goal of developing new agents for the treatment and prevention of microbial infections, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

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