School of Medicine

Wayne State University School of Medicine

Dr. Chen wins prestigious Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant to perform 'field-changing' preterm birth research

Kang Chen, Ph.D.

Kang Chen, Ph.D.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a prestigious independent private funding agency in North Carolina, awarded Wayne State University School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Immunology and Microbiology and Oncology Kang Chen, Ph.D., a four-year, $600,000 grant to study the functions of B cells in pregnancy and preterm birth. The funding supports an extension of research that began nearly two years ago to develop B cell-targeted immunotherapies to prevent and treat preterm birth.

B cells are a type of white blood cell in the immune system that produce antibodies and generate humoral immunity. Despite their critical function in a variety of immune responses, they have long been thought to be unimportant in pregnancy by researchers in the field of reproductive medicine. By studying women who had term or preterm pregnancy, Dr. Chen’s group discovered that maternal B cell dysfunction plays an important role in the pathogenesis of preterm birth. The findings are further confirmed in mouse models. Dr. Chen’s discovery changes the long-held view that maternal humoral immunity is unimportant in pregnancy and brings an important conceptual advance to the field.

“Our work will change the field and move it forward,” Dr. Chen said. “By establishing and understanding the functions of maternal humoral immunity and B cells in pregnancy, our work will pave the way for B cell-targeted therapies to prevent and/or treat preterm birth. This will have a significantly positive impact on public health in both developing and developed countries.”

“The award was also made possible by the hard work of my team members, including Dr. Azure Faucette; Dr. Zhao-Yuan Wang; Dr. Fayi Yao, and Dr. Benjamin Unger, as well as the support of my collaborators and mentors Dr. Shijie Sheng; Dr. Wei-Zen Wei; Dr. Lawrence Lum; Dr. Bonita Stanton, and my Chair Dr. Elizabeth Puscheck,” he said.

Dr. Chen, a member of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute’s Tumor Biology and Microenvironment Program and the Mucosal Immunology Studies Team of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will lead a team of collaborators, including the School of Medicine’s Bernard Gonik, M.D.; Theodore Jones, M.D.; Lawrence Lum, M.D., D.Sc.; Karoline Puder, M.D; and Martin Bluth, M.D., Ph.D.; Washington University School of Medicine’s Mark Miller, Ph.D.; and Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Andrea Cerutti, M.D.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is dedicated to advancing biomedical sciences by supporting top scientists and transformative research. “Burroughs is a highly prestigious and competitive funding agency that values the quality and potential of the scientific research it funds,” said Shijie Sheng, Ph.D., a School of Medicine professor of pathology and oncology who leads the Tumor Biology and Microenvironment Program at Karmanos. “Dr. Chen studies B cells in reproduction, a topic that has never been regarded to be important. However, upon the grant review and an intensive face-to-face interview with Dr. Chen, Burroughs is convinced that Dr. Chen’s findings are striking, provocative and likely to advance the field. In addition, Dr. Chen has demonstrated great potential of a promising scientific and has a track record of important discoveries and publications in leading journals.”

“I am elated and feel honored to be entrusted by Burroughs Wellcome Fund to lead the groundbreaking research,” Dr. Chen said. “The award will spearhead top quality basic research to synergize with the clinical campaign to maximize the positive impact on our communities."

He is the first faculty member at Wayne State named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund investigator. He and four other awardees will attend a ceremony and conference in October at the BWF headquarters in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

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