A top scientist who studies the underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms through which exercise provides unmatched health benefits is joining Virginia Tech to lead research and create innovations to preserve good health and prevent disease.

Zhen Yan, an internationally recognized molecular exercise and physiology researcher, will become the inaugural director of the new Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC Center for Exercise Medicine Research, said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the research institute and Virginia Tech vice president for Health Sciences and Technology.

Yan will lead research to better understand the role of exercise in preventing cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer, which account for more than 75 percent of health care costs in the U.S., Friedlander said.

“Dr. Yan is a global leader in cellular exercise research and will be a magnet for collaborations with scientists and students working on basic studies in cells to health behaviors and clinical research,” Friedlander said. “His work and the research done by others at the new center will form a powerful catalytic nexus that will bring health scientists from across Virginia Tech, including the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Blacksburg campuses, as well as physicians from VTC [Virginia Tech Carilion] School of Medicine and Carilion Clinic, together in collaborative partnerships to address one of the signature health challenges of our time – obesity and cardiometabolic health.” 

Yan will have a key leadership role in the planning and implementation of the new Roanoke-based Center for Exercise Medicine Research, which will be located in the metabolism and obesity wing at the institute’s newest research building at 4 Riverside Circle.

His goals are to identify the molecular processes of exercise’s documented benefits to promote wellness and defend the body against disease and to create innovative approaches to access these processes, including behavior and drug therapies to help people who may not be able to exercise because of physical or other limitations.

“Exercise research literally relates to everyone,” said Yan, who will be a professor and primary faculty member of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and also a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “People become very excited when they talk about exercise, especially if they’ve experienced the benefits. Physical activity and regular exercise are the best measures we have to promote good health and prevent disease.”

Stella Volpe, head of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, said Yan’s expertise in basic science research will add to the department’s existing strengths, and he will join senior faculty in the department to mentor students and early career scientists.

“We are thrilled Dr. Yan shares our excitement and is so willing to be an integral part of our department,” Volpe said. “His expertise further enriches the department’s strength across the range of the exercise physiology field, from basic science to applied research, from cells to the community.”

Yan joins Virginia Tech from the University of Virginia, where he was a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Skeletal Muscle Research at the Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center. Prior to that, he was an associate professor at Duke University School of Medicine. He received his doctoral degree in physiology and cell biology from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and carried out his postdoctoral research training at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.  

Yan’s contributions were recently recognized by his being selected to receive the prestigious 2022 Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Jacobæus Prize — the oldest prize of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. It was established in 1939 to commemorate the Swedish professor Hans Christian Jacobæus. The purpose of the prize is to promote medical research and is awarded annually to a distinguished international researcher.

In Yan’s view, exercise truly is the best medicine. 

“Exercise is a wake-up call to your body, saying you can do it and you need to improve,” Yan said. “Your body will respond to that signal and become better prepared for the next challenge. If you can deal with the challenge coming from exercise, you know your body is also ready to fight other challenges.”

But for all that is known about the positive effects of exercise, Yan thinks scientists only understand the tip of the iceberg.

“We don’t understand the mechanisms within our cells that give us better health,” Yan said. “If we understand that, we can make the world a very, very different place.”

Decades of study have led Yan to structures within cells called mitochondria, which could be the source of the restorative powers of exercise. 

“These tiny organelles are about 100th the size of a cell. They are like small machines within the cells,” Yan said. “They generate energy from nutrients like fat and sugar. This energy is like the fuel a car uses in the engine.”

Poor mitochondria are associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, cognitive decline — problems that present huge health challenges.

“The quantity, quality, and function of mitochondria are critically important for people to maintain health,” Yan said. “We believe that dysfunctional mitochondria are the genesis of many of these diseases.”

Last year, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yan and colleagues revealed how our cells sense problems and clear away damaged or dysfunctional mitochondria when signaled by exercise, ensuring the cellular power plants are operating properly. The findings could help inform better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

His research on the impact of regular exercise on medical conditions is extensive. In mouse models, he has shown that exercise can protect both muscle and nerves before surgery to restore blood flow for medical conditions such as heart attack or stroke. 

In a review article in Redox Biology, Yan said it is conceivable that regular exercise may produce a powerful antioxidant to reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a major cause of death in patients with COVID-19. 

Similarly, in a mouse study in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Yan found indications that women who exercise during pregnancy may reduce their children’s chances of developing diabetes and other metabolic diseases later in life.

Yan said the new center at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute will be enriched through collaborations with the research institute’s other centers for Health Behaviors Research, Human Neuroscience Research, Neurobiology Research, Vascular and Heart Research, the Neuromotor Research Clinic, and cancer research.

Likewise, his connections with the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise are a perfect fit for his work.

“With these interactions, we will have covered every aspect of the noncommunicable diseases that are so damaging today,” Yan said. “We will focus on the positive impact of exercise and other lifestyle interventions to really turn chronic health problems around and concentrate on ideas to help people to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.”

But Yan does more than study and develop discoveries about the benefits of exercise.

“I do not just preach, I also practice,” Yan said. “I kayak, bike, run, swim — any kind of exercise. We have a stationary bike in my lab, so we have no excuse not to take advantage of this great intervention to help us maintain health.”

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