Xiaodong Peng embarks on a new adventure after earning a master's in translational science
Feb. 7, 2013
A native of Beijing, Xiaodong Peng, Ph.D., expected to grow up a member of the Chinese Air Force. The son of a Chinese Army officer, he passed the strict screenings and examinations after high school required to become a bomber pilot.
But despite expectations, Dr. Peng chose a different path. He enrolled at Peking University to earn a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology. After considering postdoctoral positions in the United States, Austria and Greece, he chose to become a Hoosier, joining the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In September, he also became the first person to graduate from a new two-year program at IU designed to train the next generation of scientists in translational research and, in early January, embarked on yet another adventure as a bioinformatics developer at Eli Lilly and Co.
"There’s a huge demand for collaboration between the scientific and medical communities," said Dr. Peng, whose experiences put him at the intersection of the public and private sectors as well as the scientific and clinical realms. "These groups really need to work together to turn innovative discoveries in the lab into new therapeutic interventions or services that improve health care delivery, and patient quality of life."
Nor is his new job at his only experience outside the "ivory tower." Prior to earning a new master’s degree while also serving as a biomedical informatics fellow at the Regenstrief Institute, Dr. Peng worked as a biochemist at Semafore Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a clinical-stage biotech company in Westfield, Ind., dedicated to the discovery and development of novel small molecule cancer therapeutics. Other academic experiences include positions as a visiting scholar at the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and a research associate at the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research at the IU School of Medicine.
"Between classwork, research and study design, I’ve been pretty busy the past two years," he said. "I’m interested in using everything from my background in my career, particularly translating biological scientific discoveries into clinical practice and the marketing of new products. These are very big areas and applicable in many sectors – industry, academia and government."
The Regenstrief Institute, a not-for-profit health care research organization closely affiliated with the IU School of Medicine, provided a particularly strong opportunity to develop greater expertise in bioinformatics and medical informatics techniques to identify potential new uses for pre-existing drugs. His own work, for example, involved using anonymous patient information to pinpoint individuals prescribed drugs to treat asthma and migraine pain and then interrogating the data to find lower than normal cancer rates. The implication being that these drugs may have a secondary, not-yet-discovered use as anti-cancer agents.
The experience honed a desire to further develop systems that accelerating the process of moving discoveries into the clinical practice. The master’s program provided additional insight how such discoveries could impact physicians and patients in the real world.
"My most interesting experience was the clinical rotation," Dr. Peng said. "We saw how clinicians treated patients, how they thought about research, and how they asked questions for themselves and for scientists to answer. I also learned about more about how pharmaceutical companies engage in the translational research process by sponsoring clinical trials."
At Eli Lilly, Dr. Peng aims to employ text and data mining and computational biology to assist decision making on multiple translational science issues, including pinpointing new uses for existing drugs – also known as drug repositioning – and then implementing clinical research to speed these new treatments to market.
Established by the IU School of Medicine and Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute in 2011, the master’s in translational science program covers all aspects of translational science, including new research techniques, regulatory and ethical issues in basic biomedical and clinical research, data analysis, and statistical and mathematical modeling. It is one of few nationwide designed specifically to confer a master’s degree in translational science.
As the program’s first graduate, Dr. Peng also acts as a pioneer for two other postgraduate researchers in the program, Karen Gregson. Ph.D., assistant professor of oral biology at the IU Dental School, and Mona M.A. Selej, a fellow in pulmonary critical care in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine at the IU School of Medicine, plus two IU School of Medicine students, Aisha N. Davis and Renecia Watkins, who began a one-year version of the program this fall.
Cindy Fox Aisen also contributed to this story.