Zhijian “James” Chen

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute

2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

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


In my journey from a remote village in China to a red carpet ceremony in California, I needed guidance, support, encouragement, and lots of luck. I have been so fortunate to receive all! I thank my parents for instinctively believing in education as the only way out for me. I was lucky to do my doctoral work in the laboratory of the late Cecile Pickart, who taught me biochemistry and influenced me with her infectious passion for science. Tom Maniatis taught me how to identify important biological problems and attack them with intense focus. I am grateful to Eric Olson for recruiting me to UT Southwestern and offering me unwavering support ever since. Mike Brown and Joe Goldstein are my scientific heroes and inspirations – they raised me up in Dallas. I am very fortunate to have a group of talented and dedicated students, postdocs and staff scientists; it has been an exhilarating experience to join them in exploring the un-knowns and sharing the “aha” moments of making new discoveries. Special thanks to Lijun Sun, Jiaxi Wu, and Rashu Seth for their important contributions. Finally, I would not have come this far without the love and support of my family.

Zhijian “James” Chen

Ceremony Acceptance Video

Breakthrough Prize Symposium Talks

Breakthrough Prize Interviews