Molecular Medicine prize winner aims to engineer fat burning organ
Wenfei Sun managed to identify temperature-induced epigenetic programming of sperm in both humans and mice, to name one thing from his PhD research and essay that won him the Molecular Medicine category of the 2021 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists. Now he is taking the research even further.
When Wenfei Sun set out to process clinical tissue samples, he did not think he would encounter any major obstacles. However, transcriptome analyses on the patient samples would take at least ten hours each, and when the sample number rose to the thousands he had a challenge ahead.
He initially thought about recruiting lots of researchers to tackle it together, but that could have introduced unwanted batch effects – data validity issues due to for example scientists working differently, in this case. Getting patient samples from hospitals is not entirely easy, so Wenfei Sun wanted to make sure he made full use of those. An automatic robot system was the only option he felt he had. Lots of effort was put into programming the system – that actually worked.
“The robot has 384 hands and takes less than one year to finish 4,200 samples, with a successful rate over 97%. I am glad it worked out and it also turned me into half an engineer” says Wenfei Sun.
Engineering a fat burning organ
Brown adipose tissue can generate heat through non-shivering thermogenesis, something that can be activated by for example cold exposure. This could potentially be utilized to help overweight individuals. Active brown adipose tissue only exists in a small portion of adults, however, making a therapeutic approach targeting this unattractive.
It electrifies me to figure out how nature designs something, and then think about how that could be hacked to be useful for us
In his work that made him the winner in the Molecular Medicine category of the 2021 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, Wenfei Sun wanted to learn more about these processes. He managed to identify temperature-induced epigenetic programming of sperm in both humans and mice, develop a fat compatible single-nucleus sequencing method and systemically characterize the cellular landscape of human brown fat – which lead to the identification of a novel adipocyte that regulates thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue.
Now, Wenfei Sun is pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and is part of a rapidly expanding field of thermogenic adipose tissue research, where he aims to engineer fat cells to be thermogenically active.
“I like the idea of turning fat tissue into an energy burning organ, this will benefit millions of people struggling with metabolic syndromes. It electrifies me to figure out how nature designs something, and then think about how that could be hacked to be useful for us” says Wenfei Sun.
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