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Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, Benjamin Vincent, MD, and Pengda Liu, PhD, were selected as Yang Family Biomedical Scholars in the eighth installment of this annual School of Medicine award.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The UNC School of Medicine has named three outstanding researchers as recipients of the eighth annual Yang Family Biomedical Scholars Award.

They are: Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology; Benjamin Vincent, MD, associate professor of medicine; and Pengda Liu, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics. Linnstaedt is a member of the Institute for Trauma Recovery, Vincent and Liu are members of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Each faculty member will receive a generous grant to be used at their discretion for biomedical research projects at the UNC School of Medicine. The researchers are now members of the Yang Family Society of Biomedical Scholars, which will host its eighth annual seminar to highlight their work later this year. The awards were made possible through donations from Yuanqing Yang, Chairman and CEO of Lenovo, with additional financial support from Mr. To Hing Wu, an associate to Mr. Yang.

“We are extremely grateful for Mr. Yang and Mr. Wu’s continued support of our School of Medicine’s research mission,” said Blossom Damania, PhD, Vice Dean for Research at the UNC School of Medicine. “Their generous support has tremendously helped many of our researchers, who are working at the forefront of the most pressing biomedical research questions.”

With the Yang Scholars program, the UNC School of Medicine has established a community of dedicated, promising young tenured faculty. The award recognizes faculty that have made significant scholarly contributions to their field while also receiving national recognition for their research.

Sarah Linnstaedt, PhD

Sarah Linnstaedt studies the mechanisms driving the development of chronic musculoskeletal pain following traumatic stress exposures. She has made important discoveries using powerful cutting-edge translational research methods to discover both predictive risk tools and biomarkers of chronic pain and novel therapeutic targets for the prevention of chronic pain.

Linnstaedt and colleagues discovered that individuals with a certain variant in a stress-controlling gene, called FKBP5, are more likely to develop chronic pain than those with other variants. The new evidence confirms that people, across genders and regardless of their race, who carry the pain-susceptibility variant at rs3800373 are more likely to develop chronic pain after a trauma.

Her work has also revealed more about the molecular mechanisms behind chronic post-traumatic musculoskeletal pain (CPTP). Using participant samples and data collected from longitudinal cohort studies, her lab has found that peritraumatic blood levels of CpG methylation sites in HPA axis genes, particularly CpG sites in the POMC gene, can be used to predict the development of CPTP.

Benjamin Vincent, MD

Benjamin Vincent focuses on the study of systems tumor immunology, the identification of new tumor antigens, and immunogenomics in an effort to better understand anti-tumor immunity and translate this into curative immunotherapy strategies.

Vincent and colleagues have made a plethora of discoveries, including T cell receptor and B cell receptor repertoire features that are associated with survival and response to immunotherapy in cancer patients, novel cancer antigens important in immunotherapy response, the development of an immunogenicity model that improved therapeutic effect of tumor-specific antigen vaccination, and dynamic changes in the expressed tumor antigen landscape with epigenetic therapy.

Most recently, his lab published two papers that are destined to become paradigms for selecting personalized antibody therapeutics for cancer. The first defines a tumor antigen prediction workflow using genomics data and allowing specific and broad antigen selectivity and the second presents the Vincent workflow for discovery of neoantigen-specific antibodies.

Pengda Liu is focused on the molecular mechanisms and pathways underlying abnormal cell signaling events in human cancer. Using this knowledge, his lab has set out to develop novel anti-cancer therapies. His work, which uses genetic, pharmacological, and bioinformatical approaches, has left an extraordinary impact in the field of cancer biology.

Pengda Liu, PhD

The Liu lab has recently shown that mTOR, a protein kinase which is part of the mTOR/AKT pathway, plays a role in regulating the immune system’s response to DNA damage, a key issue in genomic instability and progression to cancer.

Liu and colleagues have also made several original discoveries regarding the cGAS/STING pathway. The lab was the first to discover that cGAS, a regulatory protein, controls transcription. When CGAS protein levels are disturbed, disease formation can occur. They have also identified a novel role for STING that regulates renal cancer growth by controlling calcium levels.

His lab has also used artificial intelligence approaches to identify a novel drug that can reduce Ewing Sarcoma tumor growth in mice. Human clinical trials have since been initiated to treat patients who have developed the rare type of bone cancer.

The School of Medicine will announce the date of the Yang Family Biomedical Scholars seminar and reception at a later date.

Media contact: Kendall Daniels, Communications Specialist, UNC Health | UNC School of Medicine