Su-Chun Zhang Has a Unique View of Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research

Kris Whitman

From his sixth-floor laboratory in the University of Wisconsin Waisman Center, Su-Chun Zhang, MD, PhD, has a unique vantage point on the second tower of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research (WIMR II), which is nearing completion.

Having watched the tower’s construction, he looks forward to the day when faculty from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) Department of Neuroscience become his neighbors.

Zhang is a professor in that department and in the Department of Neurology. His laboratory will remain in the Waisman Center, where he directs the Molecular and Genetics Sciences Group and is integrally involved in other services that benefit health sciences researchers, including those who will move to WIMR II.

For instance, he launched the induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Core Facility, housed next to his laboratory.

“In this facility, we can take a little bit of skin or blood from a patient or research model that has the condition we are studying. We turn those cells into iPS cells, and we can return the iPS cells to the same patient or model,” explains Zhang, referring to models such as mice or non-human primates. “This allows us to study diseases and develop treatments in a cellular context that are appropriate to the host, without the risk of rejection.”

He adds, “In the future, we may be able to use patient-derived cells to screen drugs to determine the most effective treatments for a range of diseases.”

Before cells are safe for use in humans, the cells must be processed by another entity: the Waisman Biomanufacturing Facility, where a special “cell cleaning” technique makes processes such as cellular therapy safe for humans.

Increased Opportunities for Collaboration

Zhang – who serves on the executive committee for the UW Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, which will be housed in the second tower of the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research – is seen by many as a strong collaborator.

“Collaboration will be much easier when the neuroscience department moves to WIMR II, just across the street from me. For now, I am collaborating with my colleagues in the Medical Sciences Center on central campus, so we have to travel back and forth a lot,” he says.

Zhang admits that the travel time sometimes makes him and others choose to miss seminars and meetings that they otherwise would wish to attend. Due to limited central-campus parking, he sometimes rides the bus. More often, he dons running shoes for the two-mile trek to the Medical Sciences Center.

“The WIMR concept is really positive because it draws together the medical sciences campus,” he says.

Lauding the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research’s centralized areas for people to gather, he says, “I think daily, face-to-face interactions are critical to keeping researchers and clinicians connected.”

His new neighbors in WIMR II also will benefit from proximity to Ebling Library and the School of Pharmacy, in addition to the Waisman Center, which provides a weekly seminar featuring highly sought guest speakers. The Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center also features a monthly, interdisciplinary Neuroscience Focus Group that meets in the Waisman Center. It includes members from the UW Engineering and Pharmacy Schools, UW Departments of Biochemistry and Genetics, and various School of Medicine and Public Health departments.

Participating in the group’s activities led to collaboration between Zhang and Tim Gomez, PhD, professor in the Department of Neuroscience, who will move to WIMR II upon its completion in late 2013 or early 2014. Gomez analyzes nerve growth and how to regulate the growth to a specific target.

“Recently, we have begun examining the development of normal human forebrain neurons and motoneurons differentiated from iPSCs by Su-Chun’s laboratory. Our hope is to one day use human iPSCs to identify developmental defects in neurons derived from patients with neurodevelopmental disorders,” says Gomez.

Bringing Basic and Clinical Science Together

Zhang’s laboratory – which is able to differentiate stem cells into many different kinds of neurons – includes three graduate students, seven post-doctoral fellows, and many undergraduate and summer researchers.

Having joined the School of Medicine and Public Health in 2001 as an assistant professor in the Departments of Anatomy (now Neuroscience) and Neurology, Zhang was promoted to associate professor in 2007 in those departments and to professor in 2008 in his current departments.

Zhang earned his medical degree from the Wenzhou Medical College in Wenzhou, China, and his doctorate from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.

He completed his post-doctorate work with Professor Ian Duncan, BVMS, PhD, FRSE, in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine when – in collaboration with Professor James Thomson, PhD, VMD, from the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology – Zhang led the first effort to successfully differentiate and isolate neural progenitor cells from human embryonic stem cells in 2001. Zhang’s robust list of publications includes co-authors from around the UW-Madison campus.

“The power of the WIMR model is to create an environment for collaboration among basic and clinical scientists,” says Zhang, noting that reviewers of grant applications see value in this interaction.

“How many campuses can do this type of multi-level work and integrate it into one study?”

By Kris Whitman

This article appears in the winter 2013 issue of Quarterly.