UTSW Professor to Receive O’Donnell Award in Biological Sciences

Molecular biologist Vincent Tagliabracci, who was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2021, will be honored by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science and Technology for his groundbreaking work on so-called zombie enzymes.

A professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center has been named the recipient of a prestigious biological sciences award.

Vincent Tagliabracci, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular biology, will receive the 2024 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Biological Sciences from the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science and Technology (TAMEST) for broadening the understanding of pseudokinases, a family of enzymes that play key roles in many physiological and pathological processes. UTSW announced.

TAMEST presents annual awards to recognize the achievements of early-career Texas investigators in the fields of science, medicine, engineering, and technology innovation.

UTSW said the O’Donnell Award comes with a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to make a presentation before hundreds of TAMEST members. Tagliabracci is the 17th scientist at UT Southwestern to receive an O’Donnell Award since TAMEST initiated the program in 2006.

“I’m honored to be recognized by TAMEST and humbled to join the group of recipients from past years who are all elite scientists,” said Tagliabracci, who also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

‘Zombie enzymes’

UTSW said that pseudokinases are different from canonical kinases — molecules that catalyze the transfer of phosphate onto proteins, altering their function — such that they were originally thought to be inactive enzymes.

They are nicknamed “zombie enzymes” because they were first believed to be dead, UTSW said.

Tagliabracci’s work has shown, however, that these enzymes are alive and perform completely different kinds of chemical reactions than classical kinases. These include adenylylation (AMPylation), a process in which some pseudokinases transfer adenosine monophosphate, one of the nucleotides that makes up RNA, to proteins and glutamylation, in which pseudokinases transfer the amino acid glutamate to proteins.

Recently, Tagliabracci led a study that identified a pseudokinase necessary for capping viral RNAs, a process that’s key for the function of coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. UTSW said that inhibiting this process could offer a new way to treat COVID-19, which has killed nearly 7 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization.

“Dr. Tagliabracci’s discoveries of unexpected activities of atypical kinases in diverse clades of life have expanded the boundaries of the kinome and unveiled new biology with a broad range of therapeutic applications,” said Eric Olson, Ph.D., chair and professor of molecular biology at UTSW, who nominated Tagliabracci for the O’Donnell Award.

More on the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards

UTSW said that the Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards recognize rising star Texas researchers addressing science and technology’s essential role in society and whose work meets the highest standards of professional performance, creativity, and resourcefulness.

The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards are made possible by the O’Donnell Awards Endowment Fund, established in 2005 with support from several individuals and organizations.

This year’s recipients will be honored at the 2024 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Ceremony on Feb. 6. They will present their research preceding the awards ceremony at the TAMEST 2024 Annual Conference: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center in Austin.

“The Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards bring together a broad group of disciplines and expertise and create the space to talk about cross-disciplinary approaches to future solutions — and we couldn’t be prouder of this year’s group of innovative recipients,” said Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards Committee Chair Oliver Mullins, Ph.D., SLB Fellow for global technology company SLB, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. “These researchers are transforming the future of science and innovation in our state, and these awards are an important mechanism for maintaining a link between academia and industry and moving the research needle forward for our society.”

Tagliabracci is a Michael L. Rosenberg Scholar in Medical Research. Olson holds The Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science, the Pogue Distinguished Chair in Research on Cardiac Birth Defects, and the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research.

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