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BMB Postdoctoral Fellow Yang Liu Receives 2023 Judge and Mrs. Samuel Jordan Graham Memorial Fund Award

Lui, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wang lab, is one of two 2023 awardees in the School of Public Health


Yang Liu, MD, PhD, is one of two recipients of the 2023 Judge and Mrs. Samuel Jordan Graham Memorial Fund Award, which supports School of Public Health postdoctoral fellows working on fundamental research projects in collaboration with School of Medicine researchers.

Liu, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Jiou Wang, PhD, MD, Walder Foundation Distinguished Professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, studies amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia. Both are progressive neurodegenerative diseases that can co-occur in patients, with ALS affecting motor neuron activity while FTD commonly affects behavior, personality, and communication. Some patients have what’s known as familial ALS/FTD, linked to inherited gene mutations, while other have spontaneous ALS/FTD.

The Wang lab has long studied the effects of a hexanucleotide repeat expansion of the C9orf72 gene, a mutation which is the most common genetic cause of hereditary ALS and FTD. Earlier this year, research led by Liu was published in Neuron as a cover story showing that one way the mutation affects cells is that a DNA-binding protein called DAXX accumulates at the DNA site where the mutation occurs, triggering an epigenetic cascade.

Liu’s Graham Fund Award project will build on those findings. While ALS/FTD patients have common pathologies–changes in cells and tissues that lead to disease symptoms–not all ALS/FTD patients have the C9orf72 mutation. Liu wants to see if the epigenetic changes he found are also common in patients with ALS and FTD.

“So far, no clinical interventions can effectively slow down the process of ALS/FTD. The findings of my project may identify a common pathology and lead to discoveries of new epigenetic biomarkers for familial and sporadic ALS/FTD,” said Liu.

The Graham Fund Award recognizes that complex health issues require innovative, interdisciplinary approaches, and requires that the projects be co-mentored by faculty from both the School of Public Health and the School of Medicine. Liu will be co-mentored by Gasang Lee, PhD, a professor in Neurology who is an expert in stem cell engineering. Liu uses stem cell-derived models and expects to benefit from Lee’s experience in this area.

But to Liu, the interdisciplinary nature of this project isn’t just about techniques and research methods.

“The integration of biomedical and public health research perspectives spurs me to translate my bench work into the clinic and, thus, bring patients benefits,” he said.

He hopes that his project will do just that, by identifying mechanisms that underlie familial and sporadic ALS and FTD that can then be translated to better disease diagnosis and patient care.

The other 2023 Judge and Mrs. Samuel Jordan Graham Memorial Fund Awardee is Rubayet Elahi, PhD, MS, of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Department.