Thomas Jefferson University

Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology


The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is an established basic science department that plays a major role in the research and education missions of Thomas Jefferson University. The overall goal of the Department is to make basic and translational discoveries that impact our understanding of the biological sciences and human health and to train the researchers, educators and health care professionals of the future.

The Department’s research programs cover a diverse range of areas from cell signaling, transcription and programmed cell death to understanding diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration and AIDS. Areas of particular strength include cell signaling and receptor biology, protein trafficking, DNA replication and repair, transcription and translation, protein and nucleic acid structure and function, and mechanisms involved in disease. The Department also coordinates several major areas of education including the Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology PhD program in the Jefferson College of Life Sciences and the training of first-year medical students in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College and first-year pharmacy students in the Jefferson College of Pharmacy.  

Recent Departmental Highlights

Emad Alnemri, PhD, was recently presented with the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center 2020 Achievement in Basic Science Award. Dr. Alnemri and his team have provided many fundamental advances in the field of cell death over the course of several decades. His work started with the analysis of caspases and the Apaf1 complex in apoptosis and was followed by analysis of inflammasome complexes and necroptosis. More recently, Dr. Alnemri has studied the regulation of pyroptosis, cell death involving the release of inflammatory cytokines and damage-associated molecular patterns. These recent discoveries have explained the link between apoptosis and pyroptosis, and may ultimately provide the basis for targeted therapies to trigger pyroptosis in melanoma.

The bulk of funding for research in basic science Departments at Jefferson comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Competition for these federal funds is fierce, with funding rates sometimes as low as 10%.  As a result, scientists spend a disproportionate amount of time writing grant applications, rather than conducting their research and publishing their findings.  NIH officials recognize this concern and have attempted to create mechanisms for correcting the situation.  One of the most important initiatives that NIH has created is a grant funding mechanism termed the Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA).  As recipients of this award, NIH officials have targeted scientists whose stature and track record indicate they deserve an elevated level of freedom from the burdens of grant writing.  In short, MIRA recipients are intended to be the scientists whose research is most likely to make transformative discoveries.  From the NIH announcement, one of the main intents in creating the MIRA program is to “More widely distribute funding among the nation's highly talented and promising investigators to increase overall scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs”.

At Jefferson, three scientists have recently been awarded MIRA grants, and all three are distinguished members of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  These MIRA recipients are Drs. Ya-ming Hou, Jeffrey Benovic, and Dmitry Temiakov.  We are fortunate to have these scientists as our colleagues and delighted that the value of their research has been recognized by NIH.

This prize is awarded annually to a member of the Faculty of the Jefferson College of Life Sciences who provides outstanding laboratory mentorship and training that enhances opportunities for interdisciplinary research, teamwork and career development for their trainees, and that bridges the gap between basic and clinical research.

The symposium was a one-day event held at the University of Pennsylvania. This event featured a lecture by Dr. Merry, a prominent CAMB Alum, graduate student talks representing the wide range of CAMB research, poster sessions and alumni career panels.

Anna Pluciennik, PhD, received a 2-year grant from the Gies Foundation to study the molecular mechanisms of CAG triplet repeat instability that is the causal mutation in Huntington’s disease (HD). She proposes to investigate protein assemblies on CAG-extrahelical structures and R-loops in HD patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells using in vitro and in situ methods. These studies have the potential to identify novel factors that could be targeted for therapeutic modulation of CAG instability in HD.


Jeffrey L. Benovic, PhD, received the 2019 Sidney Kimmel Medical College Research Career Achievement Award.  This award is presented to faculty who demonstrate exceptional leadership in, and contributions to, a field of basic and/or clinical/translational research over the span of an academic career. 

The 2019 Michael and Melina Pellini Award for Innovation in the Biomedical Sciences was presented to Ya-Ming Hou, PhD, at the May 2019 TJU Awards Program .  Each year, this Sidney Kimmel Medical College faculty award is given to one faculty member for the elucidation/description of a specific discovery, technique, or instrument/device that has led to new concepts or approaches to experimentation or patient care.

Gino Cingolani, PhD, received the 2019 Provost Award for Basic Research.  This award recognizes a faculty member for significant contribution to their field through basic research.

Dr. James Keen, PhD, received the 2019 Thomas Jefferson University Award for Mentoring.  Each year, this award recognizes the exceptional efforts of a senior faculty member who has shown a continued dedication throughout their career to effectively mentor junior faculty to achieve their full potential.

Dr. Keen was also named Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center's Person of the Year for 2018.

Emad S. Alnemri, PhD, Thomas Eakins Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health (SKCC), has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

The NAI Fellows Program was established in 2012 to highlight academic inventors and innovators. Election to NAI Fellow status is the highest professional accolade bestowed solely to academic inventors who have demonstrated a highly proli􀃘c spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.

Those elected to the rank of NAI Fellow are named inventors on U.S. patents and were nominated by their peers for outstanding contributions to innovation in areas such as patents and licensing, innovative discovery and technology, significant impact on society, and support and enhancement of innovation.

The inaugural Jeffrey L. Benovic Award and Lectureship was held on November 19, 2018.  This lectureship was established in 2018 by the Department or Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Jefferson to honor the contributions of Jeffrey L. Benovic, PhD, a scientist whose insights helped shape our understanding of G protein-coupled receptors in normal physiology and disease. An outstanding teacher, colleague, mentor and leader, Dr. Benovic’s vision forged the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson.

Lectureship awardees and keynote speakers included two Nobel Laureates, Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz and Dr. Brian K. Kobilka. 

Dr. Lefkowitz, Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/James B. Duke Professor of Medicine and Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Duke University Medical Center, presented on “Seven Transmembrane Receptors.”  A physician-scientist who made teaching rounds in general medicine for 30 years, he is best known for his studies of G protein-coupled receptors, a field which he has pioneered for 50 years.

Dr. Kobilka, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, Hélène Irwin Fagan Chair in Cardiology, Stanford University School of Medicine, presented on “Structural Insights into G Protein-Coupled Receptor Activation.”  Research in his lab focuses on the structure and mechanism of action of G protein-coupled receptors.

Drs. Lefkowitz and Kobilka both received the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Office of the Provost at Jefferson signed a collaborative agreement that provides our scientists access to the state-of-the-art microscopy resources at Princeton University’s Imaging and Analysis Center. The Center houses electron microscopes for visualization of biological specimens such as purified macromolecular complexes, solubilized membrane proteins and frozen cells with near atomic resolution. This agreement provides Jefferson faculty access to the broad range of equipment and expertise at Princeton’s Imaging and Analysis Center (, which is professionally staffed with experienced microscopists offering extensive training to users. 

Of particular relevance to the work carried out in the department of Biochemistry, the collaborative agreement  provides access to two Transmission Electron Microscopes (TEMs) for routine negative stain analysis of biological specimens, an automatic plunger freezer (Vitrobot) for preparation of cryogenic grids and a newly installed 300kV Titan Krios G3 cryo equipped with a K2 Summit® electron counting direct detection camera (also featured at This equipment will allow TJU researchers to carry out all stages of EM data collection that requires screening by negative stain EM, freezing at cryogenic temperatures, and acquisition of high resolution ‘movies’ under low dose. All subsequent steps of single particle analysis can be conveniently carried out in-house using workstations or shared computer clusters.

Anna Pluciennik, PhD, was awarded a grant from the Hereditary Disease Foundation for her project: "Crosstalk between DNA repair pathways in Huntington's disease."

Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder caused by an expansion of a CAG repeat tract within the huntingtin gene. The CAG repeat is highly unstable, both intergenerationally and in somatic cells. A growing body of evidence suggests the existence of genetic modifiers of age at onset of the disease. Interestingly, several of these modifiers are genes that encode proteins involved in DNA interstrand crosslink repair and DNA mismatch repair. However, the molecular function of these proteins in somatic expansion of CAG repeats is uncertain; moreover, although these two pathways seemingly have opposing effects on repeat instability, the mechanisms underlying such crosstalk is not understood. Therefore, we propose to isolate and characterize protein assemblies in mouse striatal cells that recognize and process CAG extrusions (the DNA structures that underlie repeat instability). We will also characterize the cell type specific protein assemblies that recognize and process CAG extrusions in human patient iPSC-derived neurons. Modulation of such factors may eventually represent viable therapeutic strategies for the treatment of HD.

Yohei Kirino, PhD, was recently promoted to Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.


Peter Ronner, PhD, received the Sidney Kimmel Medical College Faculty Team Achievement Award. This award is given annually and “recognizes the collaborative work of faculty teams leading to innovations or other achievements in clinical care, education, or research.”

Michael Root, MD, PhD, received the Sidney Kimmel Medical College Dean’s Award for Excellence in Education. This award is presented to faculty who “demonstrate superior effectiveness as teacher and devote significant time/effort to teaching over a sustained period of time, and/or faculty who demonstrate major contributions to an educational course, clerkship or program of training.”

Dr. Root also received the 2018 Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center (SKCC) Director’s Award for Achievement in Mentoring.  Jeffrey L. Benovic, PhD, Thomas Eakins Endowed Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and SKCC’s Associate Director of Education, presented the award to Dr. Root at the 2018 SKCC Member Retreat held at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Jeffrey L. Benovic, PhD, received the Discovery of the Year Award for Basic Science. The award was presented by Andrew Aplin, PhD, Associate Director of Basic Research at SKCC, at the 2018 SKCC Member Retreat held at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Dr. Benovic and his laboratory have been researching on the mechanisms that regulate G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signaling, with a particular focus on the role of GPCR kinases (GRKs) and arrestins.  “Because GRKs play a central role in regulating GPCR function, a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in this process provides an opportunity to manipulate this pathway in treating various diseases,” Benovic said.

Gino Cingolani, PhD, received the 2018 Rieders Faculty Prize in Graduate Education. This annual award recognizes outstanding performance by a Jefferson College of Biomedical Sciences faculty member engaged in the education of graduate students at the doctoral or masters level including lecturing in didactic courses, research training in the laboratory setting, or other aspects of student membership.

Dr. Mazo received the Michael and Melina Pellini Award for Innovation in the Biomedical Sciences. This award is given annually to a SKMC faculty member in recognition of exceptional research accomplishments that have “led to new concepts or approaches to experimentation or patient care.” Dr. Mazo’s award broadly recognizes his contributions to the field of epigenetics and is specifically for elucidating mechanisms that connect replication of the genome to gene expression.

Dr. Kirino received the SKMC Early Career Investigator Award for Distinguished Achievement in Biomedical Research. This award is given annually to a faculty member for outstanding research carried out “in basic and/or clinical/translational research within the first ten years of his/her initial faculty appointment.” Dr. Kirino’s award is for elucidating molecular mechanisms used by small regulatory RNAs to control cellular processes.

Dr. Ronner received the SKMC Career Educator Award. This award is given annually in recognition of “outstanding contributions to education in academic medicine both within his/her institution and to education in his/her field over a career.” Dr. Ronner also received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Education. This award is for faculty who “demonstrate superior effectiveness as a teacher, devote significant time/effort to teaching over a sustained period of time, or for faculty who demonstrate major contributions to an educational course, clerkship or program of training.”