The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as professionals, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
Liqun Wang has always been fascinated by neuroscience. Early in her career, she did basic biomedical research to better understand a rare neurodegenerative disease called Alexander Disease. This left her wondering, “What can I do to really help these patients?” After spending time in industry, she joined the Wyss Institute’s Brain Targeting Program to develop technologies to better deliver drugs to the brain. Learn more about Liqun and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I am part of the Wyss’ Brain Targeting Program. We’re developing technology to deliver drugs to the brain more effectively. Our work will enable the creation of sorely-needed therapeutics for a variety of brain diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders, brain tumors, neuro-centric enzyme deficiency diseases, and psychiatric diseases.
What real-world problem does this solve?
Right now, drugs developed for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, brain cancers, and rare genetic brain disorders have a difficult time crossing the blood-brain barrier (BBB) to reach their targets. This makes brain diseases challenging to treat. With our brain transport shuttles, we can dramatically increase the uptake of drugs into brain tissue and eventually develop therapies to improve treatment of these diseases.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I have always been fascinated by neuroscience. I spent ten years doing academic research in basic science, trying to understand the disease mechanism of a rare, often fatal neurodegenerative disorder called Alexander Disease (AxD). AxD is caused by the dysfunction of a particular brain cell type called astrocytes, and it usually affects the white matter of the central nervous system. No disease-modifying treatment is available for the patients. After doing that work, I started to wonder what more we can do to treat these patients. That motivated me to go to the translational side of things, combining my interests and expertise.
What continues to motivate and excite you?
We have seen the progress of our technology, but there is still a long way to go until there is real clinical translation to enable therapeutic development and treat patients. Seeing how far it has come and knowing that we can truly make a difference keeps me going.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
In my opinion, there is still not enough appreciation and support for brain delivery technologies. Most funding agents and companies focus on the drugs themselves, instead of the challenges those drugs face in reaching the brain. Since only a very small percentage of drugs can cross the BBB, there needs to be more support for research in this field.
When did you join the Wyss and what brought you here?
I joined on June 15, 2020, in the thick of the pandemic. What initially attracted me to the Wyss was the Brain Targeting Program. When I saw this project aiming to develop brain delivery technologies to get drugs across the BBB, I thought it was a perfect combination of my passion and expertise. In addition to my academic research, I had product development experience from working in industry on neuroscience projects. After being at the Wyss for three years, I definitely think that I have made the right decision. The whole Wyss community is just very collaborative and supportive, allowing scientists to grow to their full potential.
What is the biggest difference between working in industry and working in academia? How are you helping to bridge this gap at the Wyss?
Here at the Wyss, it’s so translational that the differences with industry are smaller. In general though, the requirements for the quality of data and reproducibility of results are probably the biggest differences. In academia, the work is cutting-edge and requires creativity. In industry, you have a product that will go to a customer, so you need to make sure it can perform each time.
I think there are a few things we’re doing to bridge this gap. Our team has standardized protocols. Work should be able to be done by different people following the same methods and getting the same results. We repeat studies, especially critical studies, so we know results are reproducible. Most importantly, our team is unbiased about data. We don’t throw away any data point unless we know ahead of time there was an issue collecting it. All of this keeps our standards high.
How do you collaborate with and receive support from teams across the Institute?
This is the best thing about the Wyss! The collaboration between different research teams and cross-functionally is amazing. I cannot even express how much I appreciate other people’s help.
When I started, the team was really small. Other researchers, like Michael Super and Shanda Lightbown, helped us with our initial in vivo studies. The veterinary team has done so much for us. We wouldn’t have made our progress without them. Even though they’re their own group, we consider them part of the Brain Targeting Program. I interact closely with the Operations, Purchasing, Sponsored Research, and Finance teams. The Business Development team and Harvard Office of Technology Development (OTD) assist us behind the scenes in pushing our technology forward. The whole community is truly helpful.
How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
My scientific foundation comes from my academic training in neuroscience. My industry experience is very helpful in making me think of the translational aspect of our work. I can look at a product and really understand how it could make it from the lab to the real world. The combination of these experiences makes me the scientist I am today.
What is your biggest piece of advice for an academic scientist looking to translate their technology?
Coming from my own experience, I think being able to persevere is critical for scientists who seek technology translation. During my first year on the team, we had a lot of trouble reproducing an important assay. After rounds of troubleshooting, optimization, and discussion with experts, we concluded that this assay was flawed, and we could not use it. The failure of this assay was almost detrimental at the time.
However, the team, led by my supervisor, James Gorman, persevered. We pivoted to new approaches and made so much progress after that. I think our experience is not unusual in translational research. There will always be ups and downs. What is important for the team and for the leaders is to keep moving forward, even in difficult times.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy taking walks with my dog and doing yoga.
What’s something fun about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?
I have two boys, and they both play hockey. I’m a hockey mom. From September to the end of March I spend a few hours at the rink each week. I’m a huge Boston Bruins fan.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
I don’t think I’d choose a different path, but there are skills I’d like to improve on. Recently, I’ve been really interested in communication. I want to be able to express myself clearly and get my ideas across. Not only is this important at work, but it’s also useful in everyday life. I hope to embrace this aspect of my current role.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
I definitely feel fortunate to be doing something I’m excited about and have a real-life impact. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me motivated.