In recognition of his groundbreaking work on the mechanisms underlying the cellular response to infection, Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has received the 2019 Switzer Prize awarded by the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

At the prize ceremony on the UCLA campus, during which Chen delivered a lecture about his research focused on the role of DNA in triggering immune defense and autoimmune diseases, the scientist said he was honored to receive the award and then joked that “to this day, I still don’t know who nominated me.”

Chen was introduced by Dr. Kelsey Martin, dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine, and Dr. Peter Tontonoz, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and biological chemistry.

“We use the word transformational a lot in science,” said Tontonoz, nothing that it’s often overused. “But when it comes to James, it really is not. We can only hope ourselves to have the level of impact that he has been able to have.”

UCLA’s medical school awards the Switzer Prize annually to a researcher whose work enhances the understanding of human physiology or biological systems. The prize is intended to recognize research excellence in the biological or biomedical sciences essential to achieving breakthroughs in medical treatments. It includes a $25,000 honorarium.

Chen’s group has been instrumental in the identification of immune response pathways that have significantly added to scientists’ understanding of how these pathways work in microbial infections and autoimmune diseases. Most significantly, his team at UT Southwestern discovered the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS, which helps launch the immune defense system to battle infections.

“cGAS is like a burglar alarm that is turned on when a danger is detected, and it sets off the body’s defense against viruses, bacteria and parasites,” Chen told an interviewer for a UT Southwestern online publication.

In October 2018, Chen was named the winner of the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for his discovery in 2012 of cGAS. And in 2005, Chen and a colleague discovered a protein that plays an important role in mounting an immune defense against RNA viruses. They named that protein MAVS (mitochondrial anti-viral signaling), a nod to Chen’s favorite basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks.

Martin said that Chen’s work embodies the benefit of biomedical research on medicine, health and biology.

“These discoveries lead to changes that impact human health, and for all of us, that is the true North Star,” opening the door for new therapeutic approaches for a broad range of diseases from infectious agents like influenza to Ebola to autoimmune diseases and cancer, she said.

In fact, Chen noted following his lecture that several biomedical companies now are working on potential therapies to address autoimmune diseases such as lupus and Parkinson’s disease based on the recent work done by his lab, as well as boosting antitumor immunity to allow more people with cancer to respond to immunotherapy.

Chen is a professor of molecular biology and director of the Center for Inflammation Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center and holds that institution’s George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science. He is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Chen grew up in a small village in southern China.

“Growing up, I didn’t really know anything about a science career and didn’t have many options,” Chen said in an interview. “At the time, the only way for kids in the village to get out and live a better life was to go to college. I went to college and got into the biology department and became interested in biochemistry after taking a class from our biochemistry teacher.”

Chen earned his doctorate from University at Buffalo. Earlier, he earned an undergraduate degree in biology from Fujian Normal University in China. A member of the National Academy Sciences, he is also the recipient of numerous awards including the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences from the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and the NAS Award in Molecular Biology.