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VT/ Fralin Biomedical Scientist to Accept International Prize for Medical Research

A top scientist in the field of exercise and metabolism will accept a leading international honor for extraordinary achievements in medical research in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Friday.

Zhen Yan, a Virginia Tech professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, will receive the 2022 Jacobæus Prize.

The prize is awarded annually by the Novo Nordisk Foundation to an internationally recognized scientist who has made groundbreaking achievements.

“I certainly feel privileged and thrilled to be selected, but I think there are many scientists who are just as eligible, if not more,” said Yan, who is also a faculty member in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Yan studies the impact of regular exercise on health and disease prevention. He said his background in medicine and his surgical training primed him in early in his career to think that exercise may indeed be the best medicine.

“We are facing an unprecedented challenge of chronic disease at a pandemic proportion,” said Yan, who directs the Center for Exercise Medicine Research of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “Pharmacological treatments are invaluable and have saved a lot of lives, but exercise as a preventive intervention at the time when we are generally healthy is probably going to be far more impactful to individuals, families, the society, and the world.”

Alongside lifespan, Yan said it is important to think in terms of health span – the period of people’s lives when they are generally healthy.

“Much of the effort in the past 50 years has been invested in developing drugs to treat various diseases, and we have made great progress,” Yan said. “Lifespan has increased in the United States by at least 10 years. However, if you look at our health span, it has not lengthened, and because of that, you have more sick people who gradually become more isolated.”

What’s the solution?

“It is clear that a wholistic intervention would be very important to promote physical health, mental health, and social health,” Yan said. “For example, there is an antioxidant molecule that can be produced by muscle and promoted by exercise to affect various different organs to provide profound protection to the heart and from severe disease, even respiratory system disorders in COVID-19.”

He continued, “There are many more. It remains a mystery that our body undergoes adaptations in response to exercise not only to improve physical performance, but also induce many other health benefits. Our recent findings of the elegant association of a master regulatory enzyme AMPK as a surrogate of energy state with the power plant of the cells, mitochondria, shed new lights on the sophisticated control system in our cells that sustains our health.”

Yan will present his research during a special lecture in Copenhagen.

“Dr. Yan is a visionary in connecting exercise to health and disease prevention through a rigorous understanding of the multiple levels of linkages across scales from the molecular to the whole organism,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “We were very fortunate that Dr. Yan joined the research institute this year and has taken a leadership role for our newest Center for Exercise Medicine Research, which will further strengthen our approach to science-based medicine for whole health, building on our existing strengths in behavioral health sciences.”

The Jacobæus Prize was established in 1939 to commemorate Hans Christian Jacobæus, a Swedish professor and pioneering clinical researcher who developed a method to improve the diagnosis and treatment of lung diseases, especially tuberculosis.

It is awarded under the auspices of the Committee on Endocrinology and Metabolism of the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

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