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Faculty Spotlight: Jun Yu, MD

News July 30, 2021

Dr. Yu

Jun Yu, MD, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular Sciences at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine, who was recently granted tenure, is working hard to understand the basic science behind a leading cause of heart disease and to discover ways to stop it in its tracks.

A focus of the Yu Lab’s work has been atherosclerosis, a disease that narrows the blood vessels around the heart. When plaque that has built up in the walls of the blood vessels rupture, it interrupts the flow of blood and causes heart attacks.

“We are trying to understand what causes the blood vessel narrowing, the plaque rupture and how to prevent its progression,” Dr. Yu said.

To do that, Dr. Yu, principal investigator, and six others working in the lab are using novel mouse models to mimic the disease in humans. They employ state-of-the-art cellular, molecular, and genetic tools to discover the fundamental mechanisms causing the disease.

“Through mouse models, we can study the pathology of the disease development,” he said. “We can then try to find the causal effects of certain molecular targets. Then, based on the targets we’ve found, develop small molecule drugs that could lead to a new therapy.”

“The optimal goal is to develop new therapies” that treat or prevent the disease, he said.

There’s no doubt the work is important. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.

“Every 36 seconds, someone dies in this country because of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Yu said. More than 40 percent die within that group due to coronary heart disease, which is why I am focusing on atherosclerosis. I think that speaks to the importance of further understanding and finding new ways to treat this disease,” he said.

Two areas of the Yu Lab’s research have recently yielded promising results.

The lab has unclogged a bottleneck in research by developing a novel mouse model that can spontaneously cause plaque rupture and heart attack. Using this model, the researchers have discovered a promising target that may regulate the plaque’s action.

“We think we have found an essential mechanism for this process to exist,” he said.

Another exciting area of the lab’s research involves the formation of scar tissue, or fibrosis, that occurs after a heart attack. The scar tissue prevents the heart from contracting naturally and sending a normal blood flow to the organs. With a $2.1 million National Institutes of Health grant and in collaboration with scientists at Yale University, the Temple lab has discovered “a very promising regulator” and a potential drug to treat fibrosis.

--From the Operating Room to the Research Lab

Dr. Yu, born in Shanghai, China, was drawn to medicine when he was only a boy in middle school. He was very close to his grandparents, whom he visited every summer, and was saddened to see them suffer from the disease. When he was a boy, his grandfather died of a heart attack right in front of him, and his grandmother died soon after surgery for pancreatic cancer.

“In both of these cases, I wanted to do something to help my family members,” he said. “I think in my young mind, it was just that.”

He graduated in 1992 from Capital Medical University in Beijing and completed a residency in surgery and a fellowship in vascular surgery at Beijing Union Medical College Hospital. For the next seven years, he thrived in his work as a vascular surgeon, performing seven or eight operations a day and enjoying the respect that accompanied the profession.

“I thought I had chosen the right profession, doing what I loved to do,” he said. “I could help patients and save lives. On the other hand, I was also troubled because some of the patients, although we tried our best, we could not save.”

That disquieting feeling led him to ask himself if he could find something new to help those patients who could not be treated with the current knowledge. “That was the reason I wanted to know how diseases initiate and how we can prevent it,” he said.

He decided to change directions, and in 2000, accepted a fellowship in vascular biology and pharmacology at the Yale University School of Medicine. There, after completing the fellowship, he established the Yu Lab in 2010.

Dr. Yu joined the faculty at the Katz School of Medicine in 2016 as an Assistant Professor. In addition to being an Associate Professor in Cardiovascular Sciences, he is an Associate Professor at the Center for Metabolic Disease Research and in Biomedical Education and Data Science.

He was among the 55 faculty members honored at a ceremony in July after being granted promotions. Asked what receiving tenure on the faculty meant to him, he said he saw it as recognition of what he had achieved so far and a motivator to do even more.

“I see this recognition as an honor and a step forward. I am excited to initiate new research and to keep moving ahead, building on what we have accomplished so far,” he said. “Additionally, as a tenured faculty member, I feel it is my responsibility to contribute my time and expertise to mentoring junior faculty and to providing even more service to the scientific communities.”

(Two Temple medical school faculty members, Jun Yu, MD and Beata Kosmider, PhD were recently granted tenure. This profile of Dr. Yu will be followed by an interview with Dr. Kosmider.)

- Lillian Swanson