Welch Foundation Honors UT Southwestern Faculty Member as ‘Rising Star’ in Chemistry with Norman Hackerman Award

Released: 27-Mar-2014 1:00 PM EDT
Embargo expired: 27-Mar-2014 2:00 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: UT Southwestern Medical Center
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Newswise — DALLAS – March 27, 2014 – Dr. Benjamin P. Tu, associate professor of biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, was honored today with the 2014 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. Dr. Tu was recognized for innovative studies of once-unappreciated molecules that may someday improve treatments for cancer or conditions associated with aging.

The award is given by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry. The Welch Foundation presents the $100,000 award annually to honor early career scientists at Texas institutions who are expanding the frontiers of chemistry. Dr. Tu, 36, is the fifth UT Southwestern researcher since 2002 to receive the award, which is named after Dr. Norman Hackerman, an internationally known chemist and former president of both the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University.

Dr. Tu’s work indicates that metabolites – small molecules produced when the body processes nutrients – may be the drivers of key cellular processes rather than mere bystanders, as conventional wisdom had held. In research that may lead to new treatments for human disease, Dr. Tu identified a unique nutritional pathway in mammalian cells that is unnecessary for healthy cells but crucial to support the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells. He then discovered a way to block that pathway.

“Dr. Tu is an outstanding investigator whose discoveries are at the nexus of biology and chemistry,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern Medical Center. “Dr. Tu’s work is advancing our understanding of what could be a very critical connection between metabolism and the fundamental cellular processes of cell growth, division, and autophagy, the ‘housecleaning’ process through which cells destroy damaged proteins and organelles.”

“I am very honored to receive this award and wish to thank all my mentors, colleagues, and trainees who believed in me along the way,” Dr. Tu said. “It is wonderful that the Welch Foundation so generously supports basic chemical research in Texas. This support will help us better understand processes that are fundamental to conditions such as cancer and aging. We hope to continue discovering unforeseen roles for small molecule metabolites in biology, improving our understanding of diseases affected by cellular metabolism.”

Dr. Tu began his research in yeast and recently expanded to mammalian cells to understand how metabolism affects fundamental cellular processes when nutrients are scarce. His strategy runs counter to the usual approach.

“Scientists tend to culture cells under nutrient-rich conditions because we want them to grow,” said Dr. Tu. “In reality, cells in the wild or growing in a tumor often face unfavorable nutritional states. Those are the times you can really see the impact of metabolites. They kick off cellular strategies for survival, such as delaying cell division until more nutrient-favorable times.”

The son of two scientists, Dr. Tu enjoyed numbers as a child. An undergraduate course in the organic chemistry of life and lab work at Harvard College convinced him to pursue a career in biochemistry. He arrived at UT Southwestern as a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry, in 2004 and joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2007.

“Ben graduated from Harvard with honors, and then did fantastic doctoral work in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco,” Dr. McKnight said. “He has proven to be as good as it gets as an experimental scientist.”

Dr. Tu’s honors include the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in Biomedical Sciences, a Sara and Frank McKnight Foundation Fellowship (named to honor Dr. McKnight’s parents), an AAAS/Science/GE Healthcare Young Scientist Regional Award, and a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering.

UT Southwestern’s other Hackerman Award winners are Dr. Kim Orth, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, in 2010; Dr. Patrick Harran, former professor of biochemistry, in 2007; Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen, professor of molecular biology, in 2005; and Dr. Xiaodong Wang, former professor of biochemistry, in 2003.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty includes many distinguished members, including five who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering more than 2,700, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to nearly 91,000 hospitalized patients and oversee more than 2 million outpatient visits a year.

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