Zhen Yan. Fralin Biomedical Research Institute photo.

Why would an internationally recognized exercise medicine researcher leave UVa for Roanoke? The opportunity to direct a new center at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC was too good to pass up. Randy Walker met with Zhen Yan in the new Riverside 4 building.

When Michael Friedlander tells people that one of the country’s fastest growing biomedical research institutes is located in Roanoke, Virginia, a lot of them say, “What?”

“I run into people like that all the time,” said Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC (Virginia Tech Carilion), “sometimes in Richmond, but all around the country when I travel. Many people know of Virginia Tech, of course … [but] our clinical partner Carilion Clinic is more of a regional health system, very well known in southwest Virginia, in Virginia, but not so much in California, New York, places like that. So when you talk to people around the country, and if you say VTC, most of them don’t know what you’re talking about, be honest with you. 

“But the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC gets a lot of national and international press. There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories and pickups of stories all over the country and all over the world about research discoveries and breakthroughs that happen in Roanoke. Most of them are very flattering, and they say things like Roanoke, Virginia, where is that? And they have to tell their readers where it is in Southwest Virginia. But we get a lot of good coverage for the excellent work that goes on here. Nonetheless, we’re still new, we’re just 12 years old, as I said, and so we’re still getting the word out about who we are all over the country and the world.”

Friedlander expects FBRI’s profile to rise even higher with the addition of Zhen Yan, an internationally recognized researcher who studies the effect of exercise using animals. Lured away from the University of Virginia, where he was one of three faculty members to win a Distinguished Researcher award for 2021, Yan was named the founding director of FBRI’s new Center for Exercise Medicine Research and will also be a professor in Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. He started Sept. 1.

Zhen Yan in his new and yet to be equipped biochemistry laboratory. Randy Walker photo.

Yan said he hoped “to find out precisely the reason underlying the superb benefit of exercise.”

One might wonder why a new institute is needed. Aren’t the benefits of exercise already well known?

“My argument is that you know, and you don’t know,” Yan said. “Just very superficially that we know that exercise is good. But we don’t know how good exercise is. We don’t know why exercise is so good. 

“We only know really very little. And we start to see a lot of very exciting scenarios, exciting findings … really pointing us to the superb benefit of exercise. So for example, we know that exercise can prevent diabetes and obesity.  But how much do we know about exercise and cancer?” 

Yan hopes to show that exercise can prevent cancer, the nation’s second-leading cause of death.

Zhen Yan (pronounced “zen yen”) trained as a surgeon in China before coming to the United States. He received his doctoral degree in physiology and cell biology from the University of Texas, was an associate professor at Duke University School of Medicine, and was professor of medicine and director of a skeletal muscle research center at UVa.

He said chose to leave UVa because of the opportunity to join a fast-growing institute with “the best equipment space and the opportunity to recruit new faculty to team up to do this great impact work.”

Friedlander can cite a few statistics in support of the claim that Fralin is one of country’s fastest-growing biomedical research institutes. 

“The National Institutes of Health, NIH, analyzes every year, on a five-year rolling basis, the dollars in grant awards they give to up to 2,000 organizations, universities, hospitals, medical centers, not only in the United States, all over the world. So the last data that they have goes 2016 to 2020. And if you look in there and you look up Virginia Tech, you’ll see over that five-year period, Virginia Tech’s NIH funding went up by 60%. Now, that’s all of Virginia Tech, but a large part of Virginia Tech’s NIH grant support actually comes through the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. And you look around the rest of the state of Virginia, and none of the other institutions in Virginia are anywhere near that in the rate of growth. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re certainly among the fastest growing in that regard, if not actually it, because it’s a really hard comparison to make quantitatively.”

Friedlander said when he told Yan that FBRI was committed to developing a center of exercise medicine research, “I think he saw the vision and that he could be an important component of the leadership team in building that, and saw an opportunity to take his science to the next level. And also, he spent a lot of time talking to the people here and meeting them. And I think he heard a lot of the enthusiasm of the other researchers and got the sense of what a really first class and accelerating operation it is.”

Yan’s exercise medicine unit “won’t just be in isolation as a standalone center,” Friedlander said. “So, for example, we have another center led by Dr. Warren Bickel, called the Center for Health Behaviors Research. And the Center for Exercise Medicine Research will directly interact and tie in, because so many aspects of health behavior relate to things like diet and exercise. And so there’ll be connections there.

“We also have a center called the Center for Vascular and Heart Research. And so all the cardio-metabolic diseases, diabetes that causes heart disease, obesity that leads to heart disease, hypertension, etc., there’ll be great interactions between Dr. Yan at the Center for Exercise Medicine Research, and our cardiovascular center headed by Dr. Rob Gourdie. And then even our Center for Human Neuroscience Research, headed by Dr. Read Montague, there’ll be a lot of interactions there, because so much of what we’re learning about the human brain and rewards and how it functions relates to decisions we make about exercise, nutrition, etc. So he’ll be very interconnected to at least three, if not more of the other centers within the FBRI.”

“Everything the other centers are doing really can synergize with the exercise center,” Yan said. 

Yan isn’t coming alone. At least four postdoc students and research associates will be joining him, he said. 

Eventually, with trainees, postdocs, undergraduate students, research assistants and associates, “it could mean 40 people.”

A key staff member is his wife, Mei Zhang, who is also his lab manager. She’s coming in November with the rest of the team.

In addition to humans, he’s bringing rodents. “I use a lot of genetically engineered mice,” he said. He said he has 200 cages at UVa and is bringing 30 individual lines of mice.

Yan’s research is animal-based. “I may or may not get into human research, but forming the center so that we can do human research, not necessarily myself doing it. So we may recruit the best people to do the human side of this research enterprise.”

Yan listed what he felt were his three most important discoveries.

1) Animal studies suggest that if an expectant parent has obesity, exercise during pregnancy can mitigate the negative impact on the offspring.

2) Aerobic exercise can boost a natural antioxidant that circulates in the blood. This antioxidant protects the heart, and also protects against acute respiratory distress syndrome.

3) His most important discovery concerns mitochondria, the power plants of cells. If mitochondria are in distress, an enzyme triggered by exercise helps restore them to health.  Poor mitochondrial health is associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, and cognitive decline. Yan’s work with mitochondria led to the UVa Distinguished Researcher award.

2022 is shaping up to be a big year for Yan. He won the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Jacobæus Prize, which promotes medical research. Novo Nordisk is a multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in Denmark. According to the Novo Nordisk Foundation website, the accompanying award of DKK (Danish krone) 1,500,000 is distributed as a personal award of DKK 250,000 (around $32,500 according to current exchange rates) and an award for research or development work of DKK 1,250,000 (around $162,500).

“Professor Zhen Yan receives the Jacobæus prize for his long-lasting contribution to research within metabolism and physiology,” according to a statement from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. “The research has contributed with important knowledge on molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying adaptations to exercise training as well as during pathological states. The inspirational research performed by Professor Zhen Yan is characterized by the use of innovative approaches and always being of very high quality. We wish to recognize these important contributions by awarding Professor Zhen Yan the Jacobæus Prize 2022.”

Laurie Goodyear is a senior investigator at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is a co-author with Yan on a study of the effect of exercise on mitochondria in mice.

“He’s one of the most highly funded researchers in the field, investigating many aspects of molecular mechanisms underlying exercise effects,” Goodyear wrote in an email. “He uses many state of the art methods and published in very high impact journals. He’s also an Investigator of the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), a multi-center (30) consortium funded by the NIH which is determining the molecular footprint of how exercise improves health. His work is very high level!”

In Roanoke he’ll work in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Addition, informally called Building Four, or R-4 for Research 4, according to Friedlander. 

The $90-million, 139,000-square-foot addition opened in October 2021. On hand for the grand opening was Heywood Fralin, a lawyer, businessman and philanthropist whose family donated $50 million to name the institute in 2018. Construction of the new facility followed a 2016 appropriation of $45 million by the Virginia General Assembly. The institute also has space in Riverside buildings 1 and 2 and in the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C. The institute was founded in 2010. 

Annual funding comes from about five different sources, Friedlander said. 

“Firstly, we get a direct budget from Virginia Tech that comes from the legislature. That’s a line item in the Commonwealth budget that comes to Virginia Tech, specifically for research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Then Virginia Tech puts more money into the Institute from their general funding. Then we get grants, of course, and NIH grants account for between 80 and 90% of the dollars of all the grants we bring in.”

Friedlander said FBRI’s total expenditures last year were about $42 million. Of that, grant funding accounted for approximately $23 million, and within that figure, about 90% from NIH, he said.

Yan brings “very strong” NIH funding, Friedlander said. 

The institute has high expectations of Yan.

“I expect his own research will continue to flourish into new areas and understand in a more detailed way the linkages between exercise and the biology, what happens in our body, and how that links to systems that create health,” Friedlander said.

“But secondly, I think his leadership role of the center and tying into other centers, as I mentioned, and other programs in the main campus in Blacksburg, like the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will really build a momentum of a big program here that appreciates the importance of understanding exercise in health and disease, and take our biomedical research in that direction in a very big way. And I think he’ll bring in junior investigators, students, tie-in collaborations, go after some really big grants that bring in multiple units across Virginia Tech. So I think it’s really going to put us even more on the map in this space, both through his leadership of the new center, as well as his own individual research.”

A fit and youthful 63, Yan said he exercises about an hour a day. He runs and kayaks. He plans to start biking to work once he closes on a home on Deyerle Road, some 6 miles from VTC.

“I’m the beneficiary of my research,” he said. “I do realize the importance of it. It’s inconvenient for me to bike 30 minutes from home to work [while it] only takes 10 minutes for me to drive. But I realize the importance of it. As long as the weather permits, I will do it.”

He acknowledged the challenge of trying “to convince the general population to have regular physical activity and regular exercise as a preventative measures. 

“So my argument is that, if you consider exercise is medicine, that’s one way to think about it. But on the other hand, exercise is not medicine. You don’t need a doctor to prescribe exercise. It’s not a medical procedure, is not a drug. [I will] argue that exercise is better than medicine.”

Randy Walker

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was formerly a staff writer on (as it...