The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) has selected Dr. Yuh Min Chook, Professor of Pharmacology and of Biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, as the recipient of the 2015 Edith and Peter O'Donnell Award in Science.
Dr. Chook, a biophysicist known for her landmark studies into the fundamental process of protein transport into and out of the cell's nucleus, will be honored Jan. 22, 2015, during TAMEST's 12th annual conference in Houston.
TAMEST presents four Edith and Peter O'Donnell Awards each year - in medicine, science, engineering, and technological innovation - to recognize Texas researchers whose work exemplifies excellence in advancing understanding of important unmet needs. Each award consists of a $25,000 honorarium, a citation, a trophy, and an invitation to speak at the conference.
"I am deeply honored to receive the O'Donnell Award in Science, which recognizes the work of many excellent students, postdocs and researchers in my laboratory," Dr. Chook said. "I am grateful for the tremendous support from my colleagues in the departments of pharmacology and biophysics, especially Dr. David Mangelsdorf, Chairman of Pharmacology, and former Chair Dr. Alfred Gilman, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and 1994 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, and for the very collaborative environment our leaders at UT Southwestern have built."
"We admire the vision that led to the establishment of the O'Donnell awards, which annually highlight some of the most promising investigators in Texas," said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern Medical Center. "Dr. Chook's efforts to understand the underlying basis of an uncommon disorder have led to profound new insights into a fundamental mechanism of cellular transport of broad biologic importance. Her advances are moving remarkably quickly from fundamental discovery to translational science with the potential to establish new paradigms for drug development for a range of disorders ," added Dr. Podolsky, who holds the Philip O'Bryan Montgomery Jr., M.D., Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.
Advances from Dr. Chook's laboratory have been instrumental to the development of potential therapeutics that are now the subject of nearly two dozen clinical trials for a variety of cancers, including those of the blood (leukemia), the brain (neuroblastoma), and the skin (melanoma).
Her studies combine structural biology, biochemistry, biophysics, and bioinformatics to investigate a class of molecules called nuclear transport receptors that carry protein cargo into (importins) and out of (exportins) the nucleus, the cell's command center.
For proper cell function, each of the importer and exporter molecules must carry hundreds of different proteins in and out of the nucleus each day, she explained. Different sets of proteins are carried by specific nuclear transport receptors that recognize specific signals on the proteins. Dr. Chook compared the situation to buses carrying passengers through a tunnel (the nuclear pore complex through which protein cargoes enter and exit the nucleus) but only if the passengers (the proteins) have the proper tickets (signals) for travel.
When Dr. Chook began her work, only one kind of import signal had been identified. Dr. Chook identified the second class of import signals (named PY-NLS) 25 years after the discovery of the first one. The one she identified became recognized as central to the development of an uncommon, inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in which the Fused in Sarcoma protein cargo cannot properly enter the nucleus and aggregates in the cell's cytoplasm surrounding the nucleus.
She later led an interdisciplinary team that provided the world's first image of the structure of an exportin attached to its protein cargo, laying the foundation for drug development, explained Dr. Mangelsdorf, who led the committee that recruited Dr. Chook to UT Southwestern in 2001.
"Dr. Chook is an innovator in her field. But in addition to being a great scientist, she is a great role model and mentor to her trainees, and a constructive member of the UT Southwestern community," said Dr. Mangelsdorf, who holds the Raymond and Ellen Willie Distinguished Chair in Molecular Neuropharmacology in Honor of Harold B. Crasilneck, Ph.D., and the Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology.
Dr. Chook earned a dual undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a doctorate in biophysics from Harvard University, where her mentor was 1976 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Dr. William N. Lipscomb. She joined the UT Southwestern faculty as an Assistant Professor and Eugene McDermott Scholar in Biomedical Research following postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto/Mount Sinai Hospital in Canada and at New York's Rockefeller University, where her mentor was the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine Dr. Günter Blobel.
The awards, first presented in 2006, are named in honor of the O'Donnells, who are among the state's staunchest advocates for excellence in scientific advancement and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.