Brazil 2006: Junying Yuan


The International Cell Death Society presents the 2006 Scientific Award to Professor Junying Yuan for her discoveries that elucidated the genetic basic of programmed cell death and necroptosis.

Having grown up in a family of scientists and engineers in Shanghai during the Chinese cultural revolution, Junying knew the importance of science education at an early age. Majoring in biology and chemistry, Junying attended Fudan University in Shanghai, and based on her spectacular academic performance, she was accepted into the PhD program at Harvard in 1982. With a keen interest in cell death, Junying convinced the program director at Harvard to allow her to work at MIT in the laboratory of Professor Robert Horwitz.

As a graduate student, Junying’s contributions to the field of programmed cell death were nothing short of remarkable. Her research focused on unraveling genes essential for cell death in C. elegans, and demonstrated that the programmed death machinery was regulated by two preeminent genes, ced-4 and ced-3, that when mutated blocked developmental death. This pioneering work not only showed that programmed cell death was cell autonomous, and highly predictable in worm development.

After completing her PhD PhD studies at Harvard, Dr. Yuan started her own lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital from 1990 to 1993 and later returned to Harvard Medical School where she currently holds the rank as Professor of Cell Biology. As an independent scientist, she showed that the programmed cell death machinery was evolutionarily conserved, and that the worm ced-3 was the counterpart of the mammalian caspase 3. These discoveries brought Junying into the mainstay of mammalian apoptosis and neurodegeneration, where her group described in great details the relationships between trophic factor deprivation and caspase activation. Her curiosity about the role of cell death in neurodegeneration and injury also led to the identification of a new type of caspase-independent cell death, called necroptosis, which is highly relevant for ischemic death during stroke and infarction. Her laboratory has recently described in great detail the pathways involving necroptosis, and developed the first small molecule inhibitors called Nec-1.

For her work, Dr. Yuan has been presented many awards including SCBA Outstanding Young Investigator Award from MD Anderson, the 2002 Innovator Award for Breast Cancer Research, and the 2005 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. The society is honored to present Professor Yuan with the 2006 International Cell Death Society Award.