The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has named Qi-Long Ying, MD, PhD, as one of the winners of the 2016 McEwen Award for Innovation, the highest honor bestowed for stem cell research. Supported by the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, the award recognizes groundbreaking stem cell discoveries that open new avenues to explore or treat human disease.

Ying, an associate professor of Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, was named in the award with Austin Smith, PhD, from the University of Cambridge. The researchers accepted the award and shared the $100,000 prize at ISSCR’s annual meeting this June in San Francisco.

Ying originally joined Smith’s laboratory as someone who knew next to nothing about stem cells. The third child of a farmer and a factory worker, he grew up in Yongkang, a small city in China’s Zhejiang province, during the Cultural Revolution.

Despite his natural curiosity, Ying had had little chance of obtaining a higher education. Chinese universities admitted students based on political and family connections, not academics, throughout most of his childhood. This changed with the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, and the subsequent reinstatement of China’s merit-based college entrance exam. Ying earned a top score.

Although he originally dreamed of becoming a detective or a civil engineer, charismatic recruiters from the First Military Medical University persuaded him to choose a different path. What he didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that attending one of China’s military medical universities carried an obligation of 25 years of army service.

After Ying graduated, the army decided that he would treat minor ailments at a remote missile base near the Chinese border with North Korea — a three-day train ride from his hometown, his parents and his three sisters.

“We were in the mountains,” he said. “It was very, very cold — minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter. And there were no women, and there was no hope, and life was very boring. We had no future.”

But Ying was determined to elude his fate. He spent two years studying for the highly competitive exam to attend graduate school in China and earned admission to Shanghai Medical University, where he pursued his master’s and PhD degrees and postdoctoral training.

Then the army noticed his nine-year absence and summoned him back to his missile troop — now relocated to the country’s remote central region. He realized that to get out of the army, he had to get out of China.

Ying applied to at least 50 jobs all over the world and landed a postdoctoral position in Smith’s laboratory, then at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

New to both stem cells and the English language, Ying began trying to “rewind” mouse neural stem cells into embryonic stem (ES) cells — and thought he had succeeded. Months later, he realized that that the neural stem cells had spontaneously fused with ES cells in the same petri dish, producing abnormally large ES cells. It was the first proof of spontaneous fusion, and it earned him and Smith a publication in the journal Nature in 2002.

Still under Smith’s mentorship, he found a more efficient way to turn ES cells into neurons, published in Nature Biotechnology in 2003.

Next, he and Smith made the landmark breakthrough that would eventually earn the 2016 McEwen Award for Innovation. They discovered that they could inhibit ES cells from differentiating into specialized cells by exposing them to two proteins — called leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF) and bone morphogenic protein (BMP) — and published the results in Cell in 2003. Subsequently, in a 2008 paper in Nature, they used two inhibitory molecules — dubbed 2i — to mimic this effect.

“We can use embryonic stem cells to generate different cell types,” Ying said. “And these cell types can be used for cell replacement therapy, for drug screening and for many other purposes.”

After seven years, Ying left the Smith Lab to accept a faculty position at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, where he also serves as the director of the Chang Stem Cell Engineering Facility. Ying’s team made one of Science magazine’s “Top 10 Breakthroughs of 2010” by using ES cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats, modified to lack one or more genes.

“To be successful in this very competitive scientific career,” Ying said, “you have to have confidence that you can achieve something.”

— Cristy Lytal

— Video by Henry Liu