Taking the Long Road

Patrick Lang, PhD, has compiled scholastic achievements – including a Core Fulbright U.S. award– while never losing sight of his family’s roots in rural China.

Taking the Long Road click to enlarge Patrick Lang, PhD (Photo by Will Owens/UNC Graduate School)

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

As a young boy growing up in rural China near the Russian border, Patrick Lang couldn’t have dreamed the life he’s leading now. With his PhD in hand, Lang is finishing his medical degree, and will soon travel to France to work on new approaches to treat lung cancer.

In the department of cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, Lang completed his doctoral research on medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer. Lang’s work focused on the development of a therapeutic targeting a specific protein found in these tumors, treating the cancer and avoiding the harsh side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Such work was unimaginable when he was a child growing up in the Heilongjiang Province, located in the mountains of Northern China. Raised by his grandmother, Lang lived without electricity, paved roads, or running water. He worked in the fields like most everyone else in his small village. He now traces his interest in medicine to the death of his grandfather, who had a heart attack and died later that same night.

“I remember when my grandfather died, being frustrated by the lack of care available to him,” Lang said. “There was not really any medicine aside from traditional folk medicine which, frankly, didn’t work too well. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I thought there had to be more.”

He moved to the United States at age 10 and was reunited with his parents who had already immigrated to America. In just a few years – after learning English – Lang was admitted into the prestigious Illinois Science and Math Academy.

Originally, he said he saw academics, science, and medicine as a way to fit into a new culture.

“At that age, like a lot of people, I didn’t feel like I really fit in or belonged, but having something like science – something that seemed universally accepted as being good – was very attractive to me,” Lang said.

During high school he was exposed to laboratory science for the first time. Each week, he would take a bus an hour and a half into Chicago to work in the lab of Dr. Paul Carvey at Rush University studying Parkinson’s disease.

“I loved the idea of discovering something that no one had ever seen before,” Lang said. “For someone like me, that was alien. What they were doing in the lab was magic. I came from a place where that literally did not exist.”

As an undergraduate at Duke, he continued his research work but was also exposed to clinical medicine. Ultimately, he decided to pursue an MD/PhD.

“I really just could not make up my mind which path I wanted to take, so I took that as an indication that I should probably do both,” Lang said.

At the UNC School of Medicine, he completed his doctoral research in medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer, and second most common childhood cancer. It is currently treated with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Lang thought there must be a better way.

“We are talking about the brains of children, which were being treated using these very nonspecific treatments,” Lang said. “So we see high morbidity, but also growth delays, brain impairment, and problems with the endocrine system.”

His research has taken him around the world to speak at international conferences. It will now lead him to l'Institut Pasteur de Lille in Lille, France, for 10 months of research, funded by a Core Fulbright Scholar award. The Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program offers nearly 500 teaching and/or research awards in 125 countries. Unlike the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers funding to undergraduates, the Core Fulbright program is meant for post-doctoral researchers and faculty. Lang is the first Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar from the UNC School of Medicine since 2010.

Lang said the increasingly international nature of biomedical research motivated him to pursue the opportunity.

“During my research training, all the labs I worked in had international collaborators, and such collaboration is now necessary to do the types of big data projects that are now common,” Lang said. “In addition, having exposure to different ways of doing research and different patient populations will benefit me as I continue my training.”

He called his research project in France a natural extension of his doctoral work. Researchers at l'Institut Pasteur de Lille are also researching the efficacy of a protein targeting cancer treatment, this time in patients with non-small cell lung cancer.

Since the Fulbright program is sponsored by the State Department, Lang is expected to get out of the lab, participate in cultural activities, and serve in an ambassadorial role. In September, he’s expected to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Paris to receive training on how to most effectively represent the United States. He’s planning to attend multiple biomedical research conferences in France and Belgium, working to establish connections with other researchers at the Pasteur Institute, and looking forward to getting a sense for the way clinical medicine is practiced in Lille as well.

“If we want the United States to remain at the leading edge of research and clinical care, we need to understand everything else going on around the world,” Lang said.

Lang’s clinical motivations remain personal. He says his parents are aging and have experienced various health problems over the years. He wants to be able to understand and provide input regarding their care. As he’s moved through his medical school rotations, Lang said he has gained a profound appreciation for all fields of medicine and plans to pursue a specialty in Vascular Interventional Radiology.

His most powerful patient encounter of medical school, though, happened thousands of miles from Chapel Hill. In 2015, Lang returned to Heilongjiang for the first time. He was there to see his grandmother who was in her final days.

“There wasn’t much I could do other than make small suggestions about things to make her more comfortable, but me coming back with my stethoscope and doctor bag was a humbling experience that meant so much to her and to me,” Lang said.

As he reflected on how far he’s come, the distance only motivates him to go further.

“I am uniquely aware of how privileged we are to live here, and how privileged I am to research and practice medicine here,” Lang said. “I want to use that to benefit not only my patients, or patients in the United States, but people around the world.”


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