Exploring the possibilities of stem cell treatments in humans and animals

Yuan Wang, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, believes stem cells may hold the answer to some of medicine’s biggest questions.

Yuan Wang

Stem cells are on the next frontier of medical treatment. Unlike other cells, stem cells can divide and form new cells with specific functions in various parts of the body — bones, muscles, organs and more.

Researchers and doctors are better understanding how to deploy stem cells in precise ways, knowledge that could lead to a transformation in the way many diseases and injuries are treated.

Despite the promise of stem cell therapies, stem cell research — especially using human embryonic stem cells — has been mired in controversy for years.

The National Institutes of Health issued guidelines on research involving embryonic human stem cells in 2009. Under these rules, only human embryonic stem cells that have been listed in the NIH Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry can be used for NIH-funded research.

Additionally, advances in using human stem cells harvested from adults have unlocked a plethora of possibilities.

Yuan Wang, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science, believes stem cells may hold the answer to some of medicine’s biggest questions.

“Stem cells are the basis for regeneration in your body,” Wang said. “They can help us understand the development of disease, and we are figuring out how they can be used to replace damaged cells or replenish consumed cells in the body. The stem cell’s ability to adapt and serve any number of functions is unique, which is why it holds so much promise.”

Wang’s dedication to treating and curing diseases began just after high school, when she decided to pursue a degree in medicine. In China, students can enter medical school directly after high school and train in a five- or six-year program.

Although she didn’t pursue primary care medicine, she found research as a pathway to fulfill her career aspirations.

“During the last year of my Ph.D. study, I became tremendously interested in stem cell research,” Wang said. “I believe stem cells hold the greatest promise in regenerative medicine.”

Many types of cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and a cadre of other conditions are targets of stem cell research. Injuries such as joint ailments and burns may also benefit from stem cell therapies. In sports medicine, stem cell treatments could reduce inflammation and speed the healing of joint and soft-tissue injuries.

“Understanding the self-renewal and differentiation of stem cells in development and reproduction is one way to appreciate the cycle of life,” Wang said. “I strongly believe in conducting meaningful research to answer fundamental questions in biology, but after many years of scientific research, I appreciate more and more the importance of multidisciplinary collaborations.”

Q&A: Yuan Wang

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Animal Science

Joined MSU: 2017

Education: Ph.D., Boston University; M.S., Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine; Bachelor in Medicine, Shangdong Medical University, China

Hometown: Jinan, the capital city of China’s Shangdong province

Influential or inspiring person: My postdoc supervisor, George Daley, dean of the Harvard Medical School. His passion for science is infectious. I was lucky enough to start my stem cell research career in his lab more than a decade ago. Dean Daley is a visionary leader and a caring mentor. My Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Tom Gilmore at Boston University, also influenced me tremendously. I learned from him to disentangle complex problems into simple and solvable tasks. He taught me how to think logically and work with precision as a scientist.

Favorite food: I love seafood, especially lobster.

Book I’d recommend: I like scientific fiction. I would recommend the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” series, by Cixin Liu, a brilliantly creative Chinese writer. The first book in the series is The Three Body Problem.

If I weren’t a researcher I’d be: If I was not a researcher, I would like to become a physician to save lives.

Why I chose to work in this field: I actually graduated from a medical school in China and was trained as a doctor. I have always thought that being a doctor is the most rewarding job in the world. One would gain so much happiness to help people and save their lives. As a young and ambitious medical student, I was dreaming of curing all diseases. I had thought I would be the one to cure cancer and answer questions about living and death. For these reasons, I was also very passionate about research, as I believed only scientists could answer these questions.

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