Wang, nationally recognized geneticist, appointed head of genetics | Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

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Leads major NIH-funded genome projects, demonstrates passion for educating the next generation of physicians and scientists

Matthew Miller

Ting Wang, PhD, a national leader in genetics and genomics who has led groundbreaking studies on how the genome is regulated, has been named chair of the Department of Genetics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Computational biologist, he will start his new role on August 1st.

Wang’s lab focuses on understanding how genes are regulated in normal states, including early development, and in diseases, such as cancer. He is an expert in understanding transposable elements, short sections of the genome, many of viral origin, that have changed places in the genome over the long course of human evolution. His work uncovered how transposable elements affect the epigenome. The epigenome includes the 3D structure of the genome and the chemical modifications to the genome, which together control how and to what extent genes are expressed.

Wang, the Sanford C. and Karen P. Loewentheil Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the Department of Genetics, is well known for his leadership roles in major genomics projects supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Wang is co-director of the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium, which will provide a new generation of human reference genomes that are sequenced to completion and represent global genetic diversity. The project, funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), aims to redefine genetic variation in populations and in association with disease. This project reflects the history and critical role the department has played in the Human Genome Project, the national effort to sequence the human genome. Wang now serves on the scientific board of Washington University’s McDonnell Genome Institute, which provided about 25 percent of the data for the original sequence and continues to serve as the nation’s primary genome sequencing center.

Dr. Wang was unanimously selected by our research committee and enthusiastically endorsed by executive and departmental faculty, said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and Distinguished Professor Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin. Many have commented on his unique experiences in our research environment and his passion and energy to advance the growing opportunities in genetics. Our genetics department has a long history of industry leadership and Dr. Wang is our first choice to continue that legacy of excellence.

Domestically, Wang also directs the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ Environmental Epigenome Data Center; the data coordination center for the Impact of Genetic Variation on Function consortium; as well as the national organizing center and one of five genome characterization centers of the Somatic Mosaicism across Human Tissues Network, supported by the NIH Common Fund. The goals of these major projects are to gain a deeper understanding of human genetics, both across different populations and within individuals.

I am honored to take on this role as the head of the Department of Genetics, Wang said. It’s an exciting time to advance genomic medicine and I look forward to continuing the work of Dr. Jeffrey Milbrandt, who led the department for many years. I am thrilled to continue working with the many talented faculty, staff and students who make Washington University such a great place to explore the many ways that genetics can influence health and disease, which is essential for scientists to be able to develop better treatments.

If the DNA sequence can be thought of as the body’s genetic hardware, the epigenome is the software that reads and executes the DNA instructions. Wang is interested in how the epigenome regulates genes and how they are expressed in healthy and diseased states, including cancer. To that end, he studies transposable elements, sections of the genome that have jumped into different sequence locations, changing the regulation of that section of the genome and potentially leading to diseases such as cancer. Wang’s work has used computational approaches and systems analysis tools to define the widespread contribution of transposable elements to the evolution of gene regulatory networks. Understanding the genetic regulatory networks of how genes are turned on and off, including in a variety of animal models, can shed new light on human health and disease.

Wang’s research showed that transposable elements can act as cryptics on switches that can drive cancer growth. At the same time, these switches can create abnormal tumor-specific proteins that have the potential to serve targets for new immunotherapies. This avenue of research opens the door to new types of tumor-specific cancer vaccines.

Wang’s lab also hosts the WashU Epigenome Browser, a web-based tool that is now used by scientists around the world. The Epigenome Browser provides viewing and analysis of multiple epigenomic datasets, such as the epigenomes of many primates, including humans; many model organisms studied by scientists, including mice, fruit flies, and zebrafish; and a number of major viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS, and Ebola.

Wang received his bachelor’s degree from Peking University in Beijing. He then came to Washington University in St. Louis to take his first job as a medical research technician in the Division of Oncology. He earned his master’s degree in computer science during his time as a technician. He later earned a PhD in computational biology, also from Washington University. He continued his education as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he was a Helen Hay Whitney Fellow and studied the evolution of mammalian gene regulatory networks.

Wang joined the Washington University School of Medicine faculty in 2009 in the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology. He was named Loewentheil Distinguished Professor in 2018.

His research has a long history of investigator-initiated R01 grants from NIH, and he is the principal investigator on three active R01 grants and six central grants. He is also recognized for his leadership in promoting science and team collaboration and for his passion and dedication to teaching genetics to the next generation of medical students and biomedical science graduates.

Wang is also co-director of the Computational & Systems Biology program for the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences. He has served on several study chapters and special emphasis groups for the NIH, the American Cancer Society, and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Academic Research Program. He was named a distinguished scholar by the International Conference on Intelligent Biology and Medicine in 2018.

Wang will succeed Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, who led the department for 16 years. Milbrandt, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics, will continue to serve as executive director of the McDonnell Genome Institute and lead its research laboratory.

Under Dr. Milbrandt’s leadership, the department’s accomplishments and his contributions to the medical school and as a member of the executive faculty have been extraordinary, Perlmutter said. The Department of Genetics has an extremely strong faculty, and we believe Dr. Wang is the ideal person to create growth that leads to new research innovations and improvements in health.

About the University of Washington School of Medicine

WashU Medicine is a global leader in academic medicine, including biomedical research, patient care and educational programs with 2,800 faculty members. Its National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding portfolio is the third largest among US medical schools, has grown 52% in the past six years, and combined with institutional investments, WashU Medicine commits well each year. over $1 billion in basic and clinical research innovation and education. Its faculty practice is consistently among the top five in the country, with more than 1,800 faculty physicians practicing at 65 locations who also staff physicians at BJC HealthCare’s Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s Hospitals. WashU Medicine has a storied history in MD/PhD education, recently dedicated $100 million in scholarships and curriculum renewal for its medical students, and is home to world-class education programs in every medical subspecialty, as well as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and audiology and communication sciences.

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