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Science: Winner of AAAS Award in Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Demonstrates How Heart Cells Can Be Reprogrammed

For demonstrating that damaged cardiac cells in live mice can be reprogrammed directly into healthy, stem-cell like heart cells, Li Qian was awarded the Boyalife Science & Science Translational Medicine Award in Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine.

Her research, published in Nature in 2012, represents a pioneering advance in efforts to reprogram adult cells found in connective tissue, known as fibroblasts, into cell types that hold great promise for regenerative medicine.

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Li Qian | Science/ AAAS

"I have always believed in the power of basic science to advance translational research," Qian writes in her award-winning essay in the 17 June issue of Science, Hope for the brokenhearted. "I feel very fortunate to be able to perform highly innovative, risky projects as a junior scientist and to be recognized for doing so," she added.

Qian, an assistant professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at McAllister Heart Institute School of Medicine at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, attended a prize ceremony in her honor 23 June at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. Editors of Science and Science Translational Medicine were in attendance to present the award.

Cardiac fibroblasts make up the majority of cells in the mammalian heart, supporting its structure and function in various ways. After injuries such as heart attack, however, these cells become overactive, producing excessive amounts of proteins that ultimately turn into scar tissue.

"In our work, we targeted the 'bad' fibroblasts that ultimately would transform into scar tissue," explained Qian, "converting them into healthy cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells."

In the years since publishing her initial research, Qian and her colleagues have further refined the approach for reprogramming cardiac fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes, more widely known as induced cardiomyocyte reprogramming, or iCM.

Doing this work in live mice was an especially important milestone.

"It surprised me that the cells reprogrammed in the live heart so closely resembled endogenous cardiomyocytes" found in the mouse's own heart, Qian noted. "That is in sharp contrast to cells reprogrammed in a dish." She thinks the microenvironment of the heart may play a role in the success of the reprogramming by providing growth factors, signaling molecules, and mechanical cues. "This phenomenon demonstrates the beauty of nature and how this amazing organ can figure out things by itself."

Qian said her team has observed a greater improvement in heart pumping function and scar size reduction when studying this technique in mouse models of heart attack.

The iCM approach could one day be harnessed for other purposes including modeling diseases in individual patients and improving personalized medicine, something Qian is exploring at UNC-Chapel Hill today.

"By converting a patient's skin fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes," she said, "one could screen for drugs that could reverse a disease in that patient's skin while having minimal adverse effects."

"Advances in reprogramming are crucial for obtaining specialized cell types that are in short supply or have limited regenerative potential," said Valda Vinson, deputy editor of Science. "By generating specialized cells through reprogramming, we learn about their normal development and function with an ultimate goal of replacing or otherwise restoring those that have been damaged through injury or disease."

Qian obtained her undergraduate degree from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. As the grand prize winner, she received $25,000. The runner-up for this year's award, Yossi Buganim, currently the leader of a laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, received a prize of $5,000. The grand prize winning essay and brief abstract of the runner-up essay were both published in the print issue of Science, and both awardees received a 5-year AAAS membership including a subscription to Science.

To sponsor the award, AAAS,Science, and Science Translational Medicine joined efforts with Boyalife, an industrial-research consortium formed in Wuxi, China, in 2009. The research judging panel, composed of prominent international researchers in the fields of stem cells and regenerative medicine, was co-chaired by a Science and a Science Translational Medicine editor.

[Caption and credit for associated photo: (l) Li Qian, Science Interim Publisher Bill Moran, Yossi Buganim | Science/ AAAS]