Health and reproductive biology: a research record of paradigm-shifting discoveries

2017 Outstanding Researcher Award recognizes the career and contributions of University of Nevada, Reno Foundation Professor Wei Yan

Wei Yan, MD, PhD, is a foundation professor of physiology and cell biology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine


5/17/2017 | By: Jane Tors |

At the moment of reproductive fertilization, much of a person's health perspective is determined by the genetic and epigenetic information contained within the sperm and egg.  This research finding has changed our understanding of health and disease.

Wei Yan, foundation professor of physiology and cell biology at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, was one of the first to validate this important finding. In recognition of his distinguished research record and paradigm-shifting discoveries, Yan, who holds a medical degree and a PhD, has received the University's 2017 Outstanding Researcher Award.

Yan's research on the genetic and epigenetic regulation of human and animal reproduction is internationally recognized, and his research has been continuously supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and various foundations.

Factors such as nutrition, lifestyle, or environmental exposures all impact health. But Yan's research indicates that the quality of the gametes (sperm and eggs) has a huge impact on the health perspective of the offspring. His research has discovered that environmental insults can lead to genetic and epigenetic alterations in the gametes, which not only compromise fertility, but also predispose the offspring to many common diseases, which sometimes can even be inherited across multiple generations.

"We were among the first putting forward this provocative idea that may explain the development of many common diseases," Yan said. "Researchers and science no longer look for one generation's impact on disease development."

A significant discovery by Yan's team is the quality of sperm in determining the overall health of the offspring. It was once thought sperm only deliver the father's DNA into the egg, but Yan's research has shown that, in addition to genetic information, sperm also carry over a large amount of epigenetic information during fertilization.

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"They carry not only the DNA blueprint but also the regulators of DNA," Yan said of the role of sperm. "This finding has allowed us to link sperm quality to disease development in the offspring."

The study of sperm in Yan's lab has also contributed to new ideas and approaches to reproductive health, including advances toward the development of non-hormonal, male contraceptives.

"Dr. Yan is an outstanding scientist of international reputation whose expertise in epigenetics and reproductive medicine has led to discoveries of great importance to human health," Tom Schwenk, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. said.

Considering his contributions, it is all the more incredible to think his career in research almost didn't happen.

As Yan worked toward his medical degree from China Medical University, which he earned in 1990, he found himself drawn to laboratory settings rather than clinical practices. He pursued a fellowship in forensic pathology, and the timing of his entry into this medical and scientific arena coincided with the expanding application of new DNA technologies.

"I saw the birth and emergence of DNA testing, and my background in medicine and pathology positioned me to study this new area," he said.

Yan became the first person in China to develop and use these technologies to solve criminal cases. His time as a coroner with the Institute of Forensic Sciences for China's Liaoning Province was, as he said, "real-world CSI."

At crime scenes the most common finding is hair - not blood or bodily fluids - and because the hair shaft is enriched in mitochondrial DNA, the application of DNA testing is very effective. Yan's application of the science resulted in a dramatic increase in solved criminal cases, particularly sexual assault cases, and he was called upon by agencies across the country looking to apply the science to their investigations.

His family was proud to see Yan achieve this early-career success, but Yan was ready to head in a new direction. He quit his job to embark on a career in research and explore his newfound passion: "Doing something new, exploring something new, always looking at new questions."

He earned his PhD in physiology in 2000 from the University of Turku in Finland where he was part of an internationally renowned research lab in the study of endocrinology and reproduction science. He later completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Pathology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Foundation Professor and Chair of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology Kenton Sanders recruited Yan because of his extraordinary skills and ideas regarding reproductive biology, transgenics and molecular biology.

"He rapidly developed a productive laboratory and has consistently been one of the most productive and well-funded members of the faculty," Sanders wrote in his nomination of Yan for the Outstanding Researcher Award. "Wei has made significant contributions in the field of reproductive biology ... and has recently developed ideas and new techniques for the study of epigenetics and has worked hard on contraceptive development."

Yan has published more than 110 peer-reviewed articles with more than 5,400 citations. He holds three patents, and he has received numerous awards, including the 2009 Nevada Regents' Rising Researcher Award, the 2009 Society for the Study of Reproduction Young Investigator Award, the 2012 American Society of Andrology Young Andrologist Award and the 2013 Nevada Healthcare Hero Award for Research and Technology. In 2016, Yan was named a University of Nevada, Reno Foundation Professor, the highest honor the University bestows upon its faculty.

Yan recently received a prestigious appointment to serve as editor-in-chief of the journal Biology of Reproduction as of July 2017.

Looking back at his career, Yan places great value on the role of mentorship.

"I came here as a young assistant professor and started to look for role models," Yan said. "I sought out high-achieving scientists to learn from."

He learned a great deal from Sanders, who Yan describes as visionary and always watching where the science is going.

"I'm lucky to be in UNR Med, surrounded by top-tier scientists," Yan said. "I appreciate the collegiality in this relatively small research community, especially the support from the department chair and the dean."

He appreciates the importance of giving back and mentoring others. "My goal is to create a competitive and supportive environment, to have enthusiastic graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and contribute to their development, to make many more discoveries beneficial to human health."

"He is an expert mentor who has built strong and productive research teams," Schwenk said. "The School of Medicine is proud that Dr. Yan has been selected to join a long line of scientists and investigators recognized as outstanding researchers at UNR."

Yan formally received the 2017 Outstanding Researcher Award and a $5,000 award grant at the University's Honor the Best Ceremony on May 16.  For more information about this and other awards presented through Research & Innovation at the University, visit unr.edu/research-and-innovation/support-opportunities/awards.

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