Chuan He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago, is one of three recipients of this year’s Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research. The award recognizes promising investigators aged 45 or younger for their efforts in advancing cancer research.
“In order to tackle the problem of cancer, we need to develop a better understanding of the fundamental processes that lead to its formation,” said Craig B. Thompson, a former University of Chicago faculty member and now president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “The 2017 Marks Prize winners all have contributed to a deeper and more fundamental understanding of cancer.”
He, who is also the director of UChicago’s Institute for Biophysical Dynamics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, will share the prize with Gad Getz and Aviv Regev of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
“We had an impressive assemblage of nominees this year, and these three young scientists are among the best of the best,” said Helen Piwnica-Worms, who chaired a committee of prominent members of the cancer research community that selected the winners. “The selection committee felt very strongly that this year’s recipients have already made critical contributions to the field of cancer research and are truly poised to continue playing major leadership roles in the coming years.”
He, the director of the Synthetic and Functional Biomolecules Center at Peking University in China, is an expert in the field of cancer epigenetics and RNA modification biology. Epigenetics involves variations in the way that genes are expressed that don’t affect the actual DNA sequence. He was the first to champion the idea that modifications to RNA are reversible and can control gene expression. Control of RNA, the molecule that carries DNA’s “message” to the protein-making machinery of the cell, can affect the outcomes of gene expression.
“When I started this work back in 2008 and 2009, we knew that proteins called writers could install modifications to RNA molecules that altered their function, but no one knew that there were also proteins called erasers that could undo these changes,” He said. His team went on to identify for the first time the eraser proteins. In later work, they characterized a series of reader proteins that explain how RNA methylation functioned.
“This research laid down the mechanistic pathways for our current understanding of how these modifications impact biological outcomes, including those related to cancer,” he said. “Cancer and other diseases can hijack aberrant RNA methylation to gain a survival advantage, allowing cells to proliferate and grow out of control.”
These types of RNA changes are known to play a role in many types of cancer, including endometrial cancer, acute myelogenous leukemia, and glioblastoma. He’s work forms some of the foundations for developing potential future therapies that target RNA methylation effectors against human cancer.
Each recipient will receive a $50,000 award and give a scientific presentation at a Nov. 30 symposium at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.