Gong Chen selected as Holder of the Verne M. Willaman Chair in the Life Sciences

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Gong Chen, professor of biology at Penn State, has been appointed as Holder of the Verne M. Willaman Chair in the Life Sciences. The appointment, effective on July 1, was made by the Office of the President of the University, based on the recommendation of the dean, in recognition of Chen's national and international reputation for excellence in research and teaching.

Chen is a neuroscientist who studies molecular mechanisms of brain development and brain disorders. Specifically, his research focuses on synapses -- the neuronal connections that allow nerve cells to send signals to each other in the brain. Synapses have important roles during brain development, and the loss of synapses is the first step leading to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Chen hopes to develop an effective therapy to reduce or alleviate the symptoms of such diseases.

Using a combination of approaches including molecular biology, fluorescence imaging and electrophysiology, Chen and his group investigate how GABAergic synapses -- the major inhibitory synapses in the brain -- function in epilepsy and neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. They have identified a human gene mutation from a person with schizophrenia and have generated a mouse model in order to elucidate the neural circuit deficits underlying such neuropsychiatric disorders.

Recently, Chen and his collaborators created mature human brain cells from reprogrammed human skin cells using the cutting-edge iPS (induced pluripotent stem cell) technology. "Previous researchers could obtain brain cells only from deceased patients who had suffered from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and autism," Chen said. "Now, researchers can take skin cells from living patients -- a safe and minimally invasive procedure -- and convert them into mature brain cells that mimic the activity of the patient’s own brain cells." This innovative new strategy will allow researchers to study neurodegenerative disorders more safely and effectively, and could lead to customized treatments for individual patients based on their own genetic and cellular information.

The most significant research Chen's team currently is conducting is on brain repair. His group has developed an innovative approach to regenerate functional neurons in the mouse brain in vivo after brain injury or Alzheimer's disease. Chen and his colleagues are testing whether this new technology can be used for human brain repair after stroke, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Chen’s earlier work was recognized with an Ohse Award for Excellent Basic Research from Yale University and a National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. He is a member of many professional societies, including the American Society for Neuroscience, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the International Society for Stem Cell Research. Chen has presented invited talks at international conferences and invited lectures throughout the United States and Asia.

Chen has published scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Neuroscience, Human Molecular Genetics and Stem Cell Research with a number of his research discoveries widely reported by news media. He is a reviewer for more than 20 scientific journals including Neuron, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stem Cell and Journal of Neuroscience. Chen also has reviewed research grants for a number of funding agencies, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the British Medical Research Council, the French National Research Agency, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Alzheimer’s Association. His research has been funded by such agencies as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the American Heart Association.

Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2002, Chen was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University from 1994 to 1997 and at Stanford University from 1997 to 2001. He received a doctoral degree in neurobiology from the Shanghai Institute of Physiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1993 and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, in 1987.

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Last Updated February 27, 2014