Kuang-Lei Tsai, Ph.D., who specializes in using high-power magnification devices to shed light on cancer-associated mechanisms, has joined McGovern Medical School, home of microscopes that can produce images measured in billionths of a meter.

A firm advocate of the saying “seeing is believing,” Tsai, who came from Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., plans to use these near-atomic images to further the understanding of cancer, which claims about 600,000 lives a year in the United States.

Tsai’s new lab in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is supported with a $2 million Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Scholar Award and a $250,000 Faculty Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention Program (STARs) award from The University of Texas System.

“Dr. Tsai is an outstanding scientist whose research has been published in Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences,”’ said Rodney Kellems, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at McGovern Medical School. “He was eagerly recruited by a number of schools.”

Tsai focuses on the use of cryo-electron microscopes. They work like other transmission electron microscopes by shooting beams of electrons through frozen specimens that, in turn, can be converted into 2-D images to generate 3-D structures.

“If we can see the detailed structure of a protein involved in cancer, we can develop ways to inhibit it,” said Tsai, who earned a doctorate in structural biology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

Tsai is particularly interested in a cancer-associated protein complex involved in the transcription of genes into proteins, the body’s building blocks. It is an RNA polymerase II transcription factor called mediator.

Tsai describes mediator as a molecular bridge that conveys regulatory signals from DNA to RNA polymerase II. “A lot of human cancer is the result of mutations that throw off the balance of transcribed genes,” he said.

Tsai said the faculty and facilities at UTHealth attracted him to the Texas Medical Center. “Leading structural biologists work in the biochemistry and molecular biology department, and the university is in the process of installing one of the world’s most powerful cryo-electron microscopes,” he said.

Kellems noted that the importance of cryo-electron microscopy in structural biology research was recognized by the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which was awarded to three individuals who played a critical role in developing this powerful approach to obtain high-resolution views of important biomolecules.

“Our school had the foresight to begin investing in this important technology more than 20 years ago, a wise decision that enabled us to be in a position of considerable prominence today,” said Kellems, who is on the faculty of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“My research here will address fundamental biological questions in gene regulation and facilitate the discovery of novel therapeutic targets and strategies,” Tsai said.

The CPRIT Scholar Award program is for emerging investigators pursuing their first faculty appointment who have the ability to make outstanding contributions to the field of cancer research.

To date, CPRIT has awarded $1.88 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations. CPRIT provides funding through its academic research, prevention, and product development research programs.  UTHealth has received 52 CPRIT grants totaling almost $70 million.