Two NYSCF — Robertson Investigators Awarded Vilcek Prize

It was announced this week that NYSCF — Robertson Stem Cell Investigators Sergiu Pasca, MD, and Feng Zhang, PhD, will be presented with the 2018 Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science. Each year, The Vilcek Foundation awards prizes in biomedical science and the arts and humanities to immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society.

Dr. Pasca has always harbored a passion for science. As a child growing up in Romania, he constructed his own lab in his parents’ basement, spending hours running experiments and studying how chemicals react. His passion later became his profession after he graduated from Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy and embarked on a career in research.

Having previously studied the neuronal basis of autism while in medical school, Dr. Pasca soon became interested in how stem cells could model neuropsychiatric disorders and illuminate their underpinnings. This is now the goal of his lab at Stanford, where he is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute Stem Cell Core.

He is also an advocate for the use of organoids (miniature, lab-grown versions of organs) to study brain development and disease. His team recently used brain organoids to investigate the maturation of an important, but often overlooked, type of brain cell called astrocytes. The researchers found that their lab-grown cells matured at the same rate as those in human brains, indicating that brain organoids can be used to successfully model both typical and abnormal brain development. Dr. Pasca hopes that understanding this development will help inform the creation of effective therapeutics to treat neuropsychiatric disease.

Similarly to Dr. Pasca, Dr. Zhang has always been drawn to science. His family relocated from China to Des Moines, Iowa when Dr. Zhang was 11, and he soon began to seek out opportunities to get involved in research. While in high school, Dr. Zhang worked in a gene therapy lab, spending late nights conducting experiments and poring over data. He immediately knew he wanted to commit himself to bettering people’s lives through science, and his ambition has only amplified over time.

Dr. Zhang later studied chemistry and physics at Harvard before completing his PhD in chemical and biological engineering from Stanford. He is currently a core member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as a professor of neuroscience and biological engineering at MIT.

Dr. Zhang pioneered the development of CRISPR—a tool that has revolutionized the way we study and treat genetic disease by allowing us to locate and edit stretches of DNA within our genome. The applications of CRISPR are far-reaching: it can be used to study almost any disease with a genetic component (e.g., cancer, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease). Clinical trials using CRISPR in humans are slated to begin this year and will reveal the capability of this tool to treat real-life cases of the disease.

Dr. Zhang is also widely recognized for his work with colleagues at Stanford in developing optogenetics, a technique that lets researchers control cell activity using light, allowing for them to precisely target specific neurons and observe patterns within brain circuitry.

Through their outstanding work, Dr. Pasca and Dr. Zhang have paved the way for groundbreaking research in regenerative medicine and made incredible strides toward the development of treatments for many devastating diseases. They are very deserving of this recognition, and we can’t wait to see where their research takes them in the future. Congratulations to Dr. Pasca and Dr. Zhang!

Learn more about the Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science

Watch a video interview with Prize winner Dr. Sergiu Pasca

People mentioned: