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The Sealy & Smith Foundation establishes John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Innovations in Molecular Biology at UTMB

The Sealy & Smith Foundation establishes John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Innovations in Molecular Biology at UTMB

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A $1 million gift from The Sealy & Smith Foundation has established the John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Innovations in Molecular Biology at The University of Texas Medical Branch. Dr. Pei-Yong Shi, a professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department and vice chair for Innovation and Commercialization, has been named the inaugural recipient.

“I’m honored to be named to this distinguished chair and excited to continue our work here at UTMB,” Shi said. “This investment is an acknowledgment and reminder of the importance of this research as we combat infectious threats to health.”
Shi, who joined UTMB in 2015, is internationally recognized for his scholarship, leadership and his innovative scientific approach to counter numerous diseases. His areas of research include virology, drug discovery, vaccine development, pathogen diagnosis and cancer therapy.

“This distinguished chair recognizes Pei-Yong’s fundamental contributions to understanding the molecular biology of pathogenic RNA viruses and his pioneering countermeasures to these important threats to global health,” said Dr. Mariano Garcia-Blanco, professor and chair of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department.

Shi’s ability to quickly adapt allowed him and his team to be one of the first to engineer a reverse genetic system of SARS-Cov-2 allowing scientists to safely make the virus in the lab and manipulate it in a petri dish. Shi and his team also developed tools to streamline the COVID-19 vaccine development process, among other achievements.

When the Zika virus suddenly jumped from a mostly ignored and relatively minor disease to a global threat, Shi and his lab were already on the cutting edge of related research. His lab immediately advanced scientific knowledge of the virus by developing the first genetically engineered clone of the Zika virus early in that epidemic. Just this month, Shi and his team published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing a mutation in the Zika virus that likely led to its sudden spread and the cause of birth defects to babies born to mothers infected with the disease.

Now with the sudden and debilitating spread of COVID-19, Shi and his team have once again quickly adapted the research techniques they developed to study flaviviruses such as Zika and West Nile, to meet this new challenge. His team just recently made headlines for using an enzyme produced by fireflies to develop better tests for COVID-19 as well to better understand this new virus.

“This generous endowment supports and enhances UTMB’s efforts to alleviate the human and economic toll imposed by infectious diseases here at home and worldwide,” said Dr. Ben G. Raimer, interim president of UTMB. “With the visionary support of The Smith & Sealy Foundation and the innovative work of amazing researchers such as Dr. Pei-Yong Shi, we are making real progress toward better preventives, treatments and cures.”

“Dr. Shi’s research—and that of all those at UTMB working diligently day in and day out to keep us safe, to help us stay a step ahead of the next deadly disease and to help us understand the challenges we face—is truly inspiring,” said John W. Kelso, president of The Sealy & Smith Foundation. “We must support those doing this work so they are able to innovate, experiment and find solutions to improve health and well-being in the Galveston community, the state of Texas and around the world.”

For more on Shi’s research, go to www.utmb.edu/newsroom

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