Behind Feng Zhang's research, a passion for biology(Focus Taiwan)

  • Feng Zhang, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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(Focus Taiwan)


New York, June 18 (CNA) A passion for biology is one of the driving forces behind the research of Chinese American synthetic biologist Feng Zhang (張鋒), one of the three recipients of the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for the development of groundbreaking gene editing technology.

It's a passion that began in junior high school, where biology teachers inspired Zhang's enduring love for the science by telling him about the many breakthroughs in biology and biochemistry that could be of great benefit to many people.

Biology later remained at the center of his student life, whether as an undergraduate at Harvard University or as a graduate student at Stanford University, and the 34-year-old is now the youngest head of a lab at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, a high-powered genomics research center affiliated with MIT and Harvard.

"Biology is an amazing and profound system. Progress in biotechnology can improve people's health and life," Zhang said.

The CRISPR/Cas9 technology for which Zhang won the Tang Prize along with Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley, could provide some of the health breakthroughs Zhang envisions.

While the two female scientists are credited with achieving the key CRISPR breakthrough that enable researchers to edit parts of the genome, Zhang has made his mark by showing how the technology could be adapted to deal with disease by applying it to edit animal genomes and get it to work in human cells.

"CRISPR, or genome editing, is a very powerful tool," Zhang said. "We can use it to understand how genes work and how different kinds of genetic variations underlie disease."

Zhang said he is hoping that this understanding will lead to new treatments for genetic disorders, fight cancer and even develop better plants with higher yields in the long-term.

Acknowledging that gene editing technology "is still very young," the biologist said he and his team are attempting to "make it more perfect and precise" in the hope of using it to provide the "greatest benefits" to people in the future.

Zhang, who also teaches in MIT's Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering departments, is originally from Hebei province in China, and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 11 and settled in Des Moines, Iowa.

For a person like Zhang with such a fertile mind, getting an education in the U.S. had real benefits.

Talking about the National Higher Education Entrance Examination that exists in China, Zhang said he found the education system in the U.S. to be more flexible and offered more "opportunities."

"It is a very good opportunity to develop one's own interests," Zhang said.

That educational freedom and a passion for his research -- Zhang spends much of his time in the lab -- have fueled his rise in the biological engineering field, helping him earn a Tang Prize.

Zhang and the two other winners of the category will share a cash prize of NT$40 million (US$1.23 million) and a research grant of up to NT$10 million to be used within five years, and will receive medals and certificates.

The Tang Prize is only the latest of a series of honors Zhang has won.

Earlier this year, he shared the Canada Gairdner International Award with Doudna and Charpentier, often said to be a precursor to winning a Nobel prize.

In 2014, he won the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award, the Jacob Heskel Gabbay Award in Biotechnology and Medicine (shared with Doudna and Charpentier) and the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award (shared with Diana Bautista).

The biennial Tang Prize was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize and to honor top researchers and leaders in four fields -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology, and the rule of law.