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Making a virtual human cell | 2021 Metcalf Prize winner: Pengyi Yang, Children's Medical Research Institute and The University of Sydney

December 07, 2021

Dr Pengyi Yang plans to transform stem cell research. 

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error. 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, be it hair, skin, muscle, nerve, blood or other.”

He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise into different cell types.

Pengyi is based at the Children's Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney. He aims to remove much of the guess work from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

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

Pengyi Yang, Photo: Children's Medical Research Institute

“Stem cells are amazing because they can produce any kind of cell in the body. They’re fundamental to regenerative medicine,” Pengyi says. “But, when their controls fail, rogue stem cells can lead to cancer.”

We all start life 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 are repairing and replacing 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.”

Pengyi, a computer scientist turned stem cell researcher, is using 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.”

“The stem cell treatments that are already being used have been the product of trial and error. I want to find out how they work, and what’s controlling them,” he explains.

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

Already, Pengyi 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 are using 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 you want,” he says. “My dream is for my work to open the door to new treatments.”

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

Pengyi Yang, Photo: Children's Medical Research Institute

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