The re-programmer: Qian receives global award for stem cell research

Qian’s award-winning research explores cellular reprogramming in cardiac regeneration and disease modeling.

The re-programmer: Qian receives global award for stem cell research click to enlarge Li Qian, PhD

Media contact: Caroline Curran, (984) 974-1146, caroline.curran@unchealth.unc.edu

CHAPEL HILL, NC -- Where basic science meets translational research, Li Qian, PhD, has found her niche. In bridging that gap, the world of science and research has taken notice.

Qian’s groundbreaking research, the foundation of which began in 2009, culminated in the successful cellular reprogramming of cardiac fibroblasts – the cells of scar tissue – into functional cardiomyocytes (iCMs) – healthy muscle tissue that helps the heart beat. This work essentially turns damaged heart tissue into health heart muscle, which would be a game-changer for people who have suffered heart attacks.

The 36-year-old assistant professor at UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine has been recognized internationally for her scientific developments in cellular reprogramming and stem cell research. Qian is the first-ever recipient of the Boyalife, Science and Science Translational Medicine Award in Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

Qian’s next milestone is taking that research from animal models and implementing it in humans, which Qian hopes is about a decade away.

“I’m a very optimistic person. I think it will be within 10 years,” Qian said of moving toward clinical trials. But even as the research progresses toward the end goal of cellular reprogramming in human cells, Qian believes it’s important to continue the basic science side of the research with animal models.

“We are working on human cells,” said Qian, who is also a member of the UNC McAllister Heart Institute. “We are still using mouse models because we can generate disease models in a mouse that we can’t in a human. The basic science is critical. The potential obstacles will probably be more than we expect, especially when we move on to pre-clinical trials using large animals.

“That’s not easy. It means a lot of effort and financial support to move toward clinical trials. But it is exciting and promising.”

With her background and training in biology, Qian focuses on bridging the gap between basic science and translational research.

“I have always believed in the power of basic science to advance translational research,” Qian said. “I rely on my training in both translational and basic science to tackle reprogramming questions by exploring the fundamental molecular mechanisms of this fascinating process.

“I see the importance of bridging these two sides together because I strongly believe that without the fundamental understanding of biological process or disease progression, the translational research will be somehow limited.

“You have to understand the underlying mechanisms of the cardiac reprogramming process and the biology of heart cells, including how they were developed in embryos in order to better strategize therapies for the heart disease.”

Personalized medicine, ‘hope for the broken hearted’

Li Qian with student
Li Qian, PhD, with graduate student Haley Vaseghi.
The ultimate, beyond-the-lab goal of Qian’s research is twofold: Creating a therapeutic mechanism to improve cardiac function after a heart attack through reprogramming cells and utilizing reprogramming technology to develop personalized medicine.

As the winner of the inaugural award, Qian will have an essay published June 17 in Science. It is aptly titled “Hope for the broken hearted.”

“The idea is beyond mending a broken heart [Qian’s original essay title] because the concept can potentially apply to other diseases and to people who are heartbroken for their friends and families,” Qian said. “That’s why it’s hope for the broken hearted.”

Once the reprogramming technology advances from animal models to human models and clinical trials, Qian believes it will provide an opportunity for personalized medicine.

 “You can convert your skin cells to any type of other cells that you want, then screen drugs on them to see if it works on your own cells from the diseased organ, and if it has the minimal toxicity to you,” Qian said.

In practical terms, one would be able to test the toxicity and potential adverse effects on one’s heart before ever ingesting the drug.

“That’s very personalized medicine,” Qian said. “The proof of principle study has already come out from some labs. That’s why I’m so optimistic. I believe the reprogramming technology can be used more and more, not only in our field – for instance, cardiovascular disease – but also can be used for other diseases.”

Qian also believes this research can lead to cardiac therapies for those who suffer a heart attack or other forms of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We hope one day the scar tissue can be targeted in a very precise way and can be converted into heart muscle tissue. That way we can really save a lot of people’s lives and improve their quality of life.

“My team and I will continue to develop and utilize new reprogramming approaches to advance personalized medicine,” Qian said. “I believe that our efforts and those from others will one day lead to tailored therapies designed for individual patients.”

‘Dispelling the dogma that the heart cannot replace dead heart cells’

Charles Jennette, MD, Kenneth M. Brinkhous Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said Qian’s research was extremely important in combating heart disease.

Li Qian cells image
Li Qian, PhD, used her new technique to turn scar tissue-making cells into heart muscle cells -- cardiomyocytes (red). Blue represents cell nuclei.

“Dr. Qian’s research is dispelling the prior dogma that the heart cannot replace dead heart cells,” Jennette said. “Dr. Qian is performing exceptionally innovative research using novel approaches to restore heart function following a heart attack or chronic heart failure. Her research shows that treatment approaches may be possible that will stimulate growth of new heart cells that can improve heart function impaired by a heart attack and other forms of heart disease.”

Joan Taylor, PhD, professor pathology and laboratory medicine, and associate director of the McAllister Heart Institute, described Qian’s research as “a vital first step to realizing future regenerative treatments as a new model of healthcare.”

“Dr. Qian is performing exceptionally innovative research using stem cell approaches to restore cardiac function following a heart attack, with a particular emphasis on a new phenomenon termed cellular reprogramming,” Taylor said. “In her short time at UNC, Dr. Qian has made remarkable progress in establishing her independent research program.”

Qian, who started her own lab at UNC in 2012, earned the prestigious New Scholar in Aging from the Ellison Medical Foundation and a Scientist Development Grant from the America Heart Association. She has published 15 peer-reviewed manuscripts as principal investigator, eight of which were original research papers.

In 2012, The American Heart Association ranked Qian’s research No. 2 on the list of Top 10 advances in heart disease and stroke research. She has also received the Katz Prize in Basic Science Research from the American Heart Association, a prestigious award given to young investigators in the cardiac research field.

 “I feel very excited and also very honored to win the Boyalife, Science and Science Translational Medicine award in stem cell and regenerative medicine,” Qian said.

Qian will receive her award at the Boyalife, Science and Science Translational Medicine award ceremony in San Francisco, California, on June 22. Read her full Science essay here.

Qian is a member of the McAllister Heart Institute and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

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