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Written by Christina Crowe
Yang Zhou, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a Transformational Project Award from the American Heart Association to support her project, “Systematic deciphering regulatory elements driving direct cardiac reprogramming,” with three years of funding in the amount of $300,000.

Zhou’s lab studies heart disease, and regeneration in particular, using the cardiac reprogramming approach—considered a promising strategy to achieve cardiac regeneration.

“Direct cardiac reprogramming is a process to convert non-myocytes into functional cardiomyocytes,” Zhou says. “It provides a unique model for us to investigate the underlying molecular basis of cell plasticity and cell fate transition.”

With this research funding, Zhou’s team will initiate a study to understand the role of cis-regulatory elements (CREs) in cardiac reprogramming. CREs are noncoding sequences representing the vast majority of the human genome (nearly 99 percent).

“Annotating noncoding DNA sequences is a relatively underexploited field, but it is attracting greater interest lately,” Zhou explains. “The findings from our work will expand the catalog of human gene enhancers associated with cardiac cell fate conversion and, we hope, will transform the field of direct cardiac reprogramming.”

Zhou joined the department in 2019 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, McAllister Heart Institute. Her continued work in direct cardiac reprogramming at UAB earned her an R01 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in 2020.

She has extensive experience and expertise in cardiac differentiation and reprogramming, focusing on the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms. The long-term goal of her research is to comprehensively understand the genetic and epigenetic regulation for cell fate conversion, which will ultimately aid in the achievement of regenerative therapy and personalized medicine. Her recent works have been published in journals including Circulation, Cell Stem Cell, Cell Reports, and Science Translational Medicine.