Award-winning scientists hope for wider application of their biological research achievements

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 4 (Xinhua) — Two Chinese American scientists who won the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences last month said Saturday that they hope their research achievements in biology could have wider application that benefits human health in the future.

Zhijian “James” Chen from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is one of four winners in life sciences.

He was honored for elucidating how DNA triggers immune and autoimmune responses from the interior of a cell through the discovery of the DNA-sensing enzyme cGAS.

He illustrated the workings of an underlying, innate immune system that triggers the deployment of the fight-back response to virus, stress, radiation and other insults.

His team demonstrated how DNA is sensed by a protein that ultimately activates T-cells and white blood cells, the front-line fighters of the immune system. He wants to harness this powerful healing force to stop diseases like cancer and other disorders such as arthritis and lupus.

The other laureate of the Breakthrough Prize, Xiaowei Zhuang, with Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, won the award for discovering hidden structures in cells by developing super-resolution imaging, a method that transcends the fundamental spatial resolution limit of light microscopy.

Her invention, the stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy (STORM), is a super-resolution imaging tool that employs switchable fluorescent molecules to smash the boundaries imposed by the diffraction limit of traditional microscopes.

The revolutionary device is capable of capturing ultra-high resolution images of molecules and cellular structures 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

With STORM, her team has discovered previously unknown cellular structures, such as a periodic membrane skeleton in neurons in the brain.

“STORM has become a mature technology after more than 10 years of development, and it is now mainly used for the purpose of discovery,” Zhuang said.

She is now also working on another image-based single-cell transcriptomics approach, multiplexed error-robust fluorescence in situ hybridization (MERFISH), which allows hundreds to thousands of ribonucleic acid (RNA) species to be identified, counted and localized in individual cells while preserving the native spatial context of RNAs.

“There are tremendous molecules of different varieties inside cells, including hundreds of thousands of genes. Only through their inter-function and cooperation can cells show characteristics of life,” Zhuang said.

“We want to see all those genes at the same time and watch their mutual functions and how they determine the property of cells,” she added.

The 2019 Breakthrough Prize was announced last month to honor nine winners in recognition of their important achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

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