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About the Institute

Profile of Amy Wong

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Dr. Amy Wong

Dr. Amy Wong, PhD

  • Post-doctoral Fellow, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in Laos, a very small country in between Thailand and Vietnam. We moved to Canada when I was one-year-old and I was raised here. I did the majority of my schooling in Toronto. I completed my bachelor’s degree in human biology at the University of Toronto (U of T). In third and fourth year we were able to start specializing, so I tended to focus on human biology and pathology. 

It was in one of my pathology classes that I realized I was intrigued by cardiovascular research. A guest lecturer, Dr. Bradley Strauss gave a mesmerizing talk about vascular remodeling and restenosis. I asked to do a fourth-year research project under his supervision in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at U of T. After completing the research project in two semesters, I decided to stay on as a summer research student at St. Michael’s Hospital where I received a summer scholarship. I found my work very intriguing, so I continued on as a Master’s student in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, U of T.

With Dr. Strauss, I conducted research looking at the role of extracellular matrix proteins in vascular remodeling, following vein graft procedures and the phenotypic differences between arterial and venous smooth muscle cells, and how they also play a role in vessel remodeling. It was during this time that I met a visiting research fellow from Switzerland who was studying stem cells and lung regeneration in Dr. Duncan Stewart’s neighboring lab. We collaborated on a few experiments and I became intrigued by this emerging and exciting use of stem cells in lung regeneration. 

After completing my Master of Science with Dr. Strauss, I took an eight-month position to help a friend complete some experiments in the laboratories of Drs. Richard Weisel and Ren-Ke Li at UHN. I then realized research was really where I was happiest and decided to pursue my PhD in stem cells and lung regeneration with Dr. Thomas Waddell, in the Latner Thoracic Surgery Research Laboratories, at University Health Network.

For my PhD, I studied the role of bone marrow stem cells and how they regenerate the airway epithelium. I used naphthalene (a chemical toxin commonly found in moth balls and cigarette smoke) to induce airway-specific injury and determined the specific subset of bone marrow cells capable of regenerating the airways following this injury model.

In the last year of my PhD, I was unsure about whether I wanted to stay in academia or go into industry. I got a lot of support from my supervisors and my mentors who felt I would succeed in academia. That got me thinking about what I was still missing in my training and therefore, what I needed to fill the gap. Though I very much enjoyed the lung regeneration field, I realized that I was missing developmental and basic stem cell biology aspects: Understanding how stem cells become lineage-restricted and how the lung emerges from a tiny patch of endoderm into a very complex structure that has to perform a myriad of functions to maintain life. I felt understanding these lung developmental pathways could also provide insight as to how the lung regenerates in an adult. Knowing that the best person in the world to learn mammalian development and stem cell biology from was Dr. Janet Rossant, I was determined to do my postdoctoral in her lab. 

During that time, I also became intrigued by a new emerging field called reprogramming, whereby you can convert a somatic cell into a pluripotent stem cell that functionally and phenotypically resembled an embryonic stem cell. These were termed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells because they look and behave like embryonic stem cells. I had a chat with Dr. Gordon Keller, the Director of the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at UHN and he advised me to speak with SickKids Senior Scientist, Dr. James Ellis, because his lab is able to make iPS cells. Dr. Ellis is the Scientific Co-Director of the Ontario Human Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) Cell Facility and a renowned expert in epigenetics and viral vector design. I was determined to learn how to make iPS cells from skin samples of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. I planned to then establish a method to generate airway epithelia from these iPS cells in the hope of using these cells for regeneration and drug discovery to treat CF. I, therefore became a postdoctoral fellow co-supervised by Drs. Rossant and Ellis. I think choosing this career path has rounded me and will hopefully help me in a successful career in academia.

2. What are you researching right now?
We all know the ethical concerns about using embryonic stem (ES) cells for research. So in 2006, a Japanese group led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka discovered a way to take any somatic cell –like from skin or hair – and convert it back into an embryonic-like state that resembles an ES cell. Like the ES cells, iPS cells can generate cells of all lineages, which make these cells very appealing and potentially useful for regenerative medicine strategies, drug discovery, and disease modeling. That really caused a lot of hype in the whole stem cell field because now we can potentially use a patient’s own cell, convert it into an iPS cell, make the cell lineage you want to study, and potentially find new therapies that are specific to the patient’s needs.

The disease model I’m focused on is CF, which is particularly exciting considering the CF gene was discovered here at SickKids. CF is a genetic disorder and about 70 per cent of the cases have the same mutation, which we call Delta F508. This mutation prevents the protein, the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator (CFTR,) from being shuffled from inside the cell onto the plasma membrane (the surface of the cell). This protein is essential for chloride and water transport across all epithelia. Most of your organs contain epithelia, such as the liver, pancreas, gastrointestinal organ, reproductive organs and the skin. But, the main cause of morbidity and mortality is due to the disease in the airways, specifically the lungs. The lack of water transport across the airway epithelia in patients with Delta F508 causes them to suffer from thick chronic mucosal obstructions which create a thriving niche for bacteria to infest and cause a lot of damage to the lungs.

To date, there are no good methods to generate lung epithelial cells from ES cells and iPS cells. I think this stems from the complexity of how the lung develops. My project involves making these iPS cells from patients with CF and establishing a method to differentiate or convert them into airway cell types, specifically ciliated epithelia expressing CFTR.

Understanding the growth factors and environment that supports the early stem/progenitor cell to restrict its fate and follow a lung lineage program is how we can generate lung epithelial cells with greater efficiency than what has been published to date. By joining Dr. Rossant’s lab it has allowed me to use a developmental biology approach – understanding how the lung develops – while considering important growth factors to try to push these cells from an embryonic-like state into a final lung epithelial cell type.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I have to say my all-time favourite scientist is Dr. Janet Rossant – not because she’s the Chief of Research at SickKids or that she is my current boss – but because I really like how she mentors. I have been mentored by many scientists throughout my life, but it is Janet whom I feel really epitomizes what a great scientist should be like. Not only is she a world renowned, excellent scientist, but she is also known for training great trainees. Janet is very open-minded and gives you a lot of opportunity to grow. She gives you the opportunity to explore on your ideas but also helps guide you to success. I have never heard of anyone who has left her lab and not done well in his or her career. Also, she’s super cool! We all highly respect her as our boss and we can also have a lot of fun with her.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In the past decade, I would say the most important scientific breakthrough would be the discovery of how to make iPS cells in 2006 by Dr. Yamanaka. The first reason is that iPS cells provide a way of bypassing the ethical concerns in regard to using embryonic stem cells for research and therapy. The other reason is now we can do patient-specific discoveries because we can use a patient’s own cells to do the research, provided we know how to turn the iPS cells into the cell types we want.

Who would have thought thirty years, or even twenty years ago, you could reprogram an adult cell into an embryonic-like state? By simply using four proteins, you can switch-on the pluripotency program. Now, of course people are finding various other methods to reprogram. It is this groundbreaking work by Dr. Yamanaka that has provided us with a glimpse of how we can completely convert one cell type into another by forced expression of proteins. As a result, people have now shown we can directly convert a skin cell into a neuronal cell. It’s a very exciting discovery and we are in a very exciting time right now with stem cell research.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Running. People who know me, know that I am a huge advocate for running. I think it stems from the fact that it provides me this little sanctuary that I can escape to after work. Ironically this little sanctuary that I escape to is also where some of my ideas come from for my project. So I have to say running. I’m training to run marathons so the long runs are often challenging for the body but at the same time soothing for the mind.

I also like to read and I’m a very outdoors-y person. Whether it’s summer or winter – any time of the year – I don’t like to be cooped inside. Any activities that involve me being outside I love to do. I run outside – I don’t run on a treadmill – I call it a dread-mill. I also love mind puzzles. I do the toughest Sudoku challenges during incubation times or in-between experiments, and I do logic puzzles in the evenings before going to bed. Often trying to solve the logic puzzles puts me right to sleep and I don’t get to finish the puzzle until a few days later.

6. Why science?
I’ve known from a very young age that I like science. I tended to be better at sciences when I was in school and I always wondered how things worked or evolved, and always asked a lot of questions. I was one of those annoying kids who would sit in the back seat and constantly ask questions and wouldn’t be quiet. I would constantly nag my father to take me to the library to get books on nature.

7. Why SickKids?
As I mentioned this is where I can learn how to make iPS cells with Dr. Ellis who, at that time, was one of the two labs in Canada that was able to make iPS cells – the other person being Dr. Andras Nagy at Mt. Sinai. But I also chose SickKids because of opportunity to learn from the leading expert in stem cells and mammalian development, Dr. Janet Rossant. So it was great that both Janet and James were SickKids scientists.

9. What are you reading right now?
I just finished The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown – his most recent book. I like his work because there’s a lot of science involved in the way he writes. Other than that, I’m always reading journal articles. There are so many articles published every week and obviously my main focus when I’m reading relates to what I’m doing in my research.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Patience and perseverance. There will be many, many failed experiments or what you thought would happen, won’t happen. This often discourages people from continuing the work, but if you don’t give up, eventually you will find the answer.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I think it will be a great place for SickKids research to thrive and set us at the forefront of the leading child-health researches in the world. Unfortunately, I won’t be here long enough to be in the new building because I’m nearing the end of my fellowship, but I think it will be an inspiring place for both the trainees, and the principal investigators. Because many of the research labs will be united in one location, the tower will provide researchers the opportunity to really collaborate. And through collaboration, opportunities and creativity become endless.

March 2012