This summer of 2013, the Gates Center acquired a new member whose dream is to help human patients suffering from heart disease return their heart function to normal. Arriving from an eleven year stint at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UT Southwestern) in Dallas, Kunhua Song PhD is the first basic scientist within the Division of Cardiology’s 25 labs to study using stem cells as a tool in the treatment of heart disease. His recruitment was made possible through a generous matching gift from the Gates Frontiers Fund along with funds from the Division of Cardiology. According to Division of Cardiology Head Peter Buttrick MD, “We are very fortunate to have a young scientist of Dr. Song’s caliber joining our team.” Likewise, the Gates Center feels very fortunate to have Dr. Song joining our midst!
Born in Southwest China, Dr. Song spent his undergraduate years in Shanghai, studying biology and wanting to do research. After receiving his master’s degree at the University of Arkansas, he transferred to UT Southwestern to pursue his PhD, and it changed his life. He met a gentleman who was to become his mentor: professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology Eric Olson PhD, who is well known for having “trained an impressive succession of students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom are emerging as the next generation of leaders in cardiovascular medicine.”
The heart is the first functional organ within the human body, begins beating approximately 21 days after fertilization, and its malfunction affects an inordinate number of people all over the world. Each year there are in excess of a million heart attacks in the United States, where heart disease and failure is the leading cause of death; as it is worldwide. Within the heart, there are two types of cells, fibroblasts and cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells). One of the causes leading to heart failure involves the irreversible loss of cardiomyocytes, which affects the ability of the heart to pump. While training in Dr. Eric Olson’s lab, Dr. Song published two landmark papers. One paper, recently published in Nature, revealed a method for converting cardiac fibroblasts into new heart muscle cells. Another paper, published in Cell, described a novel, calcium-regulated signaling pathway that plays a critical role in the control of heart failure. According to one of Dr. Song’s new colleagues at Anschutz, Timothy A. McKinsey, Ph.D., “These findings, which have had a powerful impact on the regenerative medicine field, could lead to the development of new strategies to treat patients who have suffered from a heart attack.”
Dr. McKinsey goes on to say, “In addition to being a gifted scientist, Dr. Song is extremely personable and collegial, and is very excited about establishing new collaborations at the University of Colorado.” Song readily admits that science is not easy and that it is not just dependent upon raising funds. Rather, it depends largely on connections. “You cannot close the door and do it alone,” he says. Mentors are very important to the process; you must open the door to others as Dr. Olson did for him—not just in Dallas, but also by pointing him to Colorado where Dr. Olson introduced him to the Directors of the Gates Center, Dennis Roop and Peter Buttrick.
Song looks forward to enjoying life in Colorado with his wife and two sons, 9 years old Alex, and 3 years old Zack, but his first focus is on the most important task at hand—setting up his lab and recruiting people. All that said, he is happy to be here, hopes “always to interact with good people,” and believes that “we can do something unique and different here from other places.” We wish him a heartfelt welcome to our Gates Center team and all the best for the future.