Foundation gives $500,000 to study genetics and the circadian clock

By Sharon Reynolds

From left, Bonnie Bell Harding,
Mar Nell Bell and Patti Bell Brown

For more than four decades, Dr. Joseph Takahashi has studied the brain’s master clock – called the circadian clock – and has discovered its powerful influence over many of the most basic aspects of human life. The A.L. Chilton Foundation’s $500,000 gift to UT Southwestern will further his research, which has great potential to uncover the genetic secrets of circadian rhythms and translate findings into lifesaving medical breakthroughs.

Extensive experimental evidence has proven that circadian clock rhythms operate throughout the body. All of the major tissues and organ systems of the body have circadian clocks, and recent work has shown that these clocks play a major role in the control of metabolism, sleep, cognitive processes, mental health, and cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine functions.

Research has strongly associated weakened and dysregulated circadian clock rhythms with aging and many chronic diseases, including diabetes, immune disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and mood disorders. Thus, drugs that target circadian clocks have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases that affect the body, including the brain.

“The A.L. Chilton Foundation is thrilled to offer support in the research of drugs and therapies that can regulate the circadian clock to maintain positive brain health and function,” said Patti Bell Brown, a member of the Foundation’s distribution committee. “Circadian rhythm regulation seems to be the key to helping keep the body’s circadian clock in good operating order to avoid a wide range of diseases. Having supported the UT Southwestern Biochemistry Department for many years, we saw a fit with this research and its effects on metabolism, cognition, and mental health.”

“Dr. Takahashi and his team were the first scientists to uncover the specific gene responsible for generating circadian rhythms in mammals,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “Their discovery opened up new opportunities to understand the function of the gene in humans and how the body clock regulates remarkably diverse functions, not only in the brain, but throughout the body. Since then, the field of circadian rhythms will continue to progress, thanks to generous visionary organizations like the A.L. Chilton Foundation.”

The Takahashi lab is currently testing whether the circadian gene pathway is a novel target for therapeutic drug design. “Since disruptions of the circadian system or declines in its function with aging or disease are detrimental to health, we are searching for compounds that enhance clock function with the idea that restoring optimal circadian rhythms will benefit many indications such as obesity, sleep disorders, heart disease, depression, and perhaps even cancer,” Dr. Takahashi said.

Spanning more than six decades, generous A.L. Chilton Foundation gifts to UT Southwestern have totaled more than $6.7 million to support various programs and research. The Foundation was established in 1945 in Texas by A.L. and Leonore Chilton. Mr. Chilton, who owned Sky Broadcasting Service, a chain of radio stations in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, died in 1973. His close friend, the late F. Andrew Bell, and subsequently his widow, Mar Nell, and their daughters, Bonnie Harding and Ms. Brown, carry on his philanthropic legacy.


Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

Dr. Takahashi holds the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.