Dr. James Darnell’s laboratory studies how signals from the cell surface affect transcription of genes in the nucleus. Originally using interferon as a model cytokine, the Darnell group discovered that cell transcription was quickly changed by binding of cytokines to the cell surface. The bound interferon led to the tyrosine phosphorylation of latent cytoplasmic proteins now called STATs (signal transducers and activators of transcription) that dimerize by reciprocal phosphotyrosine-SH2 interchange. They accumulate in the nucleus, bind DNA and drive transcription. This pathway has proved to be of wide importance with seven STATs now known in mammals that take part in a wide variety of developmental and homeostatic events in all multicellular animals. Crystallographic analysis defined functional domains in the STATs, and current attention is focused on two areas: how the STATs complete their cycle of activation and inactivation, which requires regulated tyrosine dephosphorylation; and how persistent activation of STAT3 that occurs in a high proportion of many human cancers contributes to blocking apoptosis in cancer cells. Current efforts are devoted to inhibiting STAT3 with modified peptides that can enter cells.
Dr. Darnell received his M.D. in 1955 from the Washington University School of Medicine. His career has included poliovirus research with Harry Eagle at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, research with François Jacob at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and academic appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia University. In 1974 Dr. Darnell joined Rockefeller as Vincent Astor Professor, and from 1990 to 1991 he was vice president for academic affairs.
He is the coauthor with S.E. Luria of General Virology and the founding author with Harvey Lodish and David Baltimore of Molecular Cell Biology, now in its sixth edition. His book RNA, Life’s Indispensable Molecule was published in July 2011 by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a foreign member of The Royal Society and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.