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Wang, nationally recognized geneticist, named head of genetics

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

by Julia Evangelou StraitJune 20, 2023

Matt Miller

Ting Wang, PhD, a national leader in genetics and genomics who has led groundbreaking studies in how the genome is regulated, has been named head of the Department of Genetics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. A computational biologist, he will begin his new role Aug. 1.

Wang’s lab is focused 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 position in the genome over the long course of human evolution. His work has uncovered how transposable elements affect the epigenome. The epigenome includes the 3D structure of the genome and chemical modifications to the genome, which together control how genes are expressed and to what degree.

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 co-leads the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium, which will provide a new generation of reference human genomes that are sequenced to completion and represent global genetic diversity. The project, funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), stands to redefine genetic variations in populations as well as in association with diseases. 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 counsel of Washington University’s McDonnell Genome Institute, which provided about 25% of the data for the original sequence and continues to serve as a leading national genome sequencing center.

“Dr. Wang was the unanimous selection by our search committee and was enthusiastically endorsed by the executive and departmental faculty,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Many commented on his unique experiences in our research environment and his passion and energy for advancing the growing opportunities in the field of genetics. Our Department of Genetics has a long track record of leadership in the field, and Dr. Wang is our top choice for continuing that legacy of excellence.”

On a national level, Wang also directs the Environmental Epigenome Data Center of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; the data coordinating 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 large projects are to gain a deeper understanding of human genetics, both across diverse populations and within individuals.

“I am honored to take on this role as head of the Department of Genetics,” Wang said. “It is an exciting time to advance genomic medicine, and I look forward to continuing the work of Dr. Jeffrey Milbrandt, who has led the department for many years. I’m excited to continue working with the many talented faculty, staff and students who make Washington University such an exceptional place to explore the many ways 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 to 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 analytical tools to define the widespread contribution of transposable elements to the evolution of gene regulatory networks. Understanding gene regulatory networks — how genes are turned on and off — including in a variety of animal models, can shed light on human health and disease.

Wang’s research has shown that transposable elements can serve as cryptic “on switches” that can drive cancer growth. At the same time, these on 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 is also home to the WashU Epigenome Browser, a web-based tool that is now used by scientists around the globe. The epigenome browser provides visualization 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 important viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, SARS, MERS and Ebola.

Wang earned his undergraduate degree from Peking University in Beijing. He then came to Washington University in St. Louis to take on his first job — that of 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 went on to earn a doctoral degree in computational biology, also from Washington University. He continued his training 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 faculty of Washington University School of Medicine in 2009 in the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology. He was named the Loewentheil Distinguished Professor in 2018.

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

Wang also co-directs the Computational & Systems Biology program for the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences. He has served on multiple study sections and special emphasis panels for the NIH, the American Cancer Society, and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas Academic Research Program. He was named an eminent scholar by the International Conference on Intelligent Biology and Medicine in 2018.

Wang will succeed Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD, PhD, who has led the department for 16 years. Milbrandt, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics, will continue in his roles as executive director of the McDonnell Genome Institute and in leading his own research laboratory.

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

About Washington University School of Medicine

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

Julia covers medical news in genomics, cancer, cardiology, developmental biology, otolaryngology, biochemistry & molecular biophysics, and gut microbiome research. In 2022, she won a gold award for excellence in the Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards competition. Given by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the award recognized her coverage of long COVID-19. Before joining Washington University in 2010, she was a freelance writer covering science and medicine. She has a research background with stints in labs focused on bioceramics, human motor control and tissue-engineered heart valves. She is a past Missouri Health Journalism Fellow and a current member of the National Association of Science Writers. She holds a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Iowa State University and a master's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota.