Dr Pengyi Yang wins National Stem Cell Foundation Metcalf Prize

16 November 2021
Virtual models of human cells are transforming stem cell research
Award recognises research behind the making of virtual human cells, which allow scientists to explore how stem cells develop and how we can regenerate damaged organs.
Dr Pengyi Yang uses computational expertise to build virtual cells.

Dr Pengyi Yang uses computational expertise to build virtual cells.

Dr Pengyi Yang has received one of two annual $55,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia in recognition of his leadership in the field.

Dr Yang holds a joint position with the University of Sydney School of Mathematics & Statistics, the Charles Perkins Centre and the Children's Medical Research Institute. His work aims to remove much of the guesswork from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error,” Dr Yang said. 

“My virtual stem cell will allow us to understand what’s happening inside a single stem cell that makes it decide what type of cell it will become such as, but not limited to, hair, skin, muscle, nerve or blood cells.” 

He is mapping the many, complex influences controlling stem cells and the way they specialise into different cell types. 

“Stem cells are amazing because they can produce any kind of cell in the body. They’re fundamental to regenerative medicine,” Dr Yang said. 

“But, when their controls fail, rogue stem cells can lead to cancer.” 

All human life starts as a single stem cell. It goes on to produce cells that eventually become every type of tissue and organ of the human body. Even in adulthood, stem cells repair and replace tissue all the time. 

“People are excited about the potential of stem cell medicine, but the reality is extremely complicated. Thousands of genes, complex gene networks, environmental factors, and an individual’s own health are all involved in pushing stem cells to become specific cell types,” Dr Yang said.  

Dr Yang, a computer scientist turned stem cell researcher, uses computational science and statistics to understand how stem cells function at a fundamental level – work that will be useful for the entire stem cell field of research. 

“We need a computer model to bring all of these influences together so we can identify the specific gene networks that drive the stem cells towards each cell type,” he said. 

Dr Pengyi Yang wants to help take the trial and error out of stem cell research.

Dr Pengyi Yang wants to help take the trial and error out of stem cell research.

Winning a Metcalf Prize will help him develop a suite of tools that will help researchers interrogate the ‘big data’ related to stem cell specialisation more effectively, from how adult stem cells function in healthy ageing, to the way itransplanted cells work in regenerative medicine. 

Already, Dr Yang and his colleagues have used computational methods to create a comprehensive map of how different layers of genetic information talk to each other during a crucial stage of embryonic development. 

While his own work has focused on the early embryo, his collaborators use his techniques to understand fat stem cells, with ramifications for research into diabetes and obesity. Another group is looking at the generation of muscle tissue. 

“Ultimately, I want to make computer models that can create blueprints for using stem cells to generate any specific type of cell ,” he said. 

“My dream is for my work to open the door to new treatments.”  

Dr Yang’s research has been funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

Dr Yang received one of two Metcalf Prizes, the other going to Associate Professor Siok Teyis, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

Chairman of the National Stem Cell Foundation, Dr Graeme Blackman AO, said: “Pengyi Yang’s research unravelling the fundamentals of how different cell types form and Siok Tey’s work towards improving outcomes for her patients shows the breadth and the importance of stem-cell research – from basic science to treatments in the clinic.” 

The awards are named after the late Professor Donald Metcalf AC who, over a 50-year career, helped transform cancer treatment and transplantation medicine, paving the way for potential stem cell therapy in the treatment of many other conditions.

The 2021 Metcalf Prizes for Stem Cell Research will be formally presented at a special event later in the year.

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