Sensor sensibility

A conversation with cGAS discoverer and Lurie Prize winner James Chen

Zhijian “James” Chen’s discovery of the DNA sensor cGAS revealed the missing link between cytosolic DNA and innate immune activation, paving the way for immunotherapies targeting the cGAS-STING pathway. The lowest-hanging fruit has been in immuno-oncology, but Chen thinks there remains a trove of untapped opportunities for the pathway in autoimmune, infectious disease, injury and aging-related diseases.

On Tuesday, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) announced Chen is this year’s recipient of the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for identifying cGAS as the linchpin of cytosolic DNA sensing. Chen, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of molecular biology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, will receive the award at a May 16 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

The cells of the adaptive and innate immune systems are specialized to rid the body of pathogens and cancer cells, but non-immune cells also have developed mechanisms that enable them to fend for themselves. If infected by an intracellular pathogen, most cells in the body can mount a type of innate immune attack against the organism.

Presence of viral or bacterial DNA in the cytosol was known to trigger such immune responses, but

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