Benjamin P. Tu

Principal Investigator
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Ben Tu uses both yeast and mammalian cells to study complex processes that are linked to the internal workings of cells. He has discovered new connections between metabolism and cell growth regulation, findings that ultimately may have implications for treating diseases including cancer and neurodegeneration.

“The influence and importance of the metabolic state on cell regulation are far too often overlooked and we aim to decipher these very complex mechanisms,” said Dr. Tu, professor of biochemistry. “Our research has begun to show that small molecule metabolites play underappreciated roles in the regulation of growth and survival of cells.”

Autophagy, a survival state in which cells consume parts of themselves, degrading proteins and organelles, has long fascinated him. He calls it one of the most fundamental, if less understood, cellular processes. Through his recent research funded by the Welch Foundation, Dr. Tu has pinpointed several amino acids that are preferentially maintained by autophagy.

His lab has also been able to trace in detail the pathways by which autophagy maintains these amino acids within the cells. Such understanding, in turn, opens up the possibility of investigating mechanisms utilized by cancer cells to persist or survive chemotherapy and radiation.

“Welch’s generous funding has been fundamental to my research since first setting up my independent lab here at UT Southwestern,” Dr. Tu said. “It allows me to follow my intuition and explore my more risky ideas.”

Such fearless innovation has been his research hallmark. Scientists had thought metabolism and cell regulation were well understood before Dr. Tu discovered unsuspected and important connections between the two.

Recently, Dr. Tu’s laboratory opened a new area for investigation with findings that identified chromatin methylation as important to the production of the amino acid cysteine – results that suggest methylation might be as important to metabolism as it is to gene expression.

Dr. Tu, a UT Southwestern Presidential Scholar and a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research, began his groundbreaking studies by examining yeast – “mini” labs to test theories – and has since obtained similar findings in mammals. His early career research prowess earned him the 2014 Hackerman Award in Chemical Research, among many other honors.

“Basic research is the exploration of unknown territories – I compare it to going into a dark cave,” Dr. Tu said. “We don’t know where it’s going to lead, but we know at the end there’s going to be something very exciting that we hope could someday help human health.”