Two researchers affiliated with UC Berkeley received a $10,000 prize Oct. 18 for stem cell research that could change the way vascular diseases are treated.
Aijun Wang, an assistant professor of surgery at UC Davis, and Zhenyu Tang, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, won the arteries.
Wang — who was a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley — and Tang’s two-and-a-half-year-long research project disproves the commonly held belief that hardened arteries in vascular diseases are caused by smooth muscle cells.
By damaging blood vessel walls and observing the presence of smooth muscle cells and stem cells in mice cell tissue, the two researchers found that the smooth muscle cells disappeared fairly quickly and, instead, vascular stem cells were causing plaque to build up in arteries.
With the new research, current vascular disease treatments targeting smooth muscles cells could be replaced with new drugs that directly affect stem cells in arteries.
“For decades, people have been thinking that smooth muscle cells, which are major parts of the arterial wall, are the key contributor to the hardening of arteries, but there is no evidence,” Wang said.
Their research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Wang and Tang conducted their research at the UC Berkeley Cell and Tissue Lab under bioengineering associate professor Song Li, who nominated them for the award.
The awardees were selected out of 29 nominations by a group of professors from UCSF and UC Santa Cruz and Bay Area venture capitalists, according to QB3 Communications Director Kasper Mossman.
“(This) research had genuine potential to affect human health and be practically commercialized in the near future,” Mossman said. “It’s obviously of great interest for health in the developed world.”
Currently, Tang is collecting samples of arterial plaque from Chinese hospitals for further research, according to Mosslan. Tang will return to Li’s lab on campus to analyze it.
Wang said that he is also continuing to research at UC Davis, using human tissue samples rather than the animal tissue he used while working at UC Berkeley, and will soon begin looking into possible drug treatments.
“We have been working on blood vessels from different ages and from healthy donors and disease donors.” Wang said. “We’ve already got some pretty interesting results.”