Fascinated by the regulation and functions of autophagy—the process of cellular degradation— Congcong He, PhD, assistant professor of Cell & Developmental Biology, studies how this mechanism plays a role in metabolic diseases. Her team has made progress in identifying small molecules that alter autophagy activity.
“I plan to lead my team to further characterize mechanisms for new therapeutic interventions,” she says.
Her expertise has allowed her to create important collaborations at Northwestern and abroad investigating the role of autophagy in diverse basic and translational science areas.
What are your research interests?
My laboratory’s research focuses on the molecular regulation and metabolic functions of autophagy, a housekeeping “self-eating” pathway through lysosomes. Autophagy is induced by various stress conditions, and allows cells to adapt to changing nutrient and energy demands through protein catabolism; its malfunction is implicated in many diseases. In particular, our interests and strengths include analyzing the functions of autophagy in physical exercise-mediated metabolic benefits, and investigating the molecular mechanism of stress-induced autophagy in the prevention of metabolic, neu-ronal, and behavioral dysregulation, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. We are also interested in studying how autophagy proteins precisely coordinate with each other and orchestrate autophagy activity to prevent diseases in new cell and animal models.
What is the ultimate goal of your research?
Our long-term goal is to investigate the complexity and general principles of autophagy and other stress responses in a metabolic perspective, and apply that knowledge to the understanding of metabolic-related disorders. Specifically, one of our research goals is to unveil the vast potential and genetic basis of autophagy in the prevention of a broad spectrum of diseases, ranging from obesity to neurodegeneration, using unique genetic tools and high-throughput strategies. On the other hand, many stress responses, includ-ing autophagy, can be a double-edged sword, as their overactivation may cause toxicity. Thus, another goal of ours is to understand how to precisely induce autophagy to a high but physiologically safe level.
What types of collaborations are you engaged in across campus and beyond?
We have collaborations within Cell a& Developmental Biology, across the medical school, and internationally, which involve the investigation of autophagy in a variety of disease settings, ranging from metabolic disorders to cancer. Our collaborators include Robert Vassar, PhD, and Sui Huang, MD, PhD, in Cell & Developmental Biology, D. James Surmeier, PhD, in Physiology, William J. Muller, MD, PhD, in Pediatrics, Richard Pope, MD, in Rheu-matology, Robert Lavker, PhD, in Dermatology, Peter Sporn, MD, in Pulmonary Medicine and Cell & Developmental Biology, Brian Layden, MD, PhD, in Endocrinology, and Edward Thorp, PhD, and Wenan Qiang, MD, PhD, in Pathology. We are engaged in an international collaboration on a drug discovery project for novel autophagy-regulating compounds with Yifa Zhou at Northeast Normal University in China.
How did you become interested in autophagy?
I think every biology question resembles an unsolved detective mystery awaiting evidence collection and reasoning. Among all the puzzles, metabolism is the determin-ing characteristic of life and many diseases are caused by metabolic dysregulation in response to stress. Thus, how do cells and organisms achieve and improve metabolic homeostasis and stress handling? Various stress conditions, such as starvation, exercise, or misfolded proteins, potently induce the common protective lysosomal pathway, au-tophagy. I am fortunate to have the chance to further pursue its mechanistic linkage and therapeutic potential in metabolic diseases down the road.
Who makes up your research team?
My group currently consists of two postdoctoral fellows, Kenta and Altea, one visiting scholar, Yuying, and one lab manager, Weiran. There will be one more trainee joining this August. All the team members are working independently on at least two projects, so they have the opportunity and freedom to explore multiple directions and build up their own future academic career non-conflicting with each other.
What do you enjoy about teaching/mentoring young scientists in the lab?
As still a relatively new PI myself, I am glad to say that men-toring in my lab is a two-way process. I enjoy interacting with my lab members by discussing ideas that are still at embryonic stages, working with them on the bench side-by-side, and learning together from unexpected discoveries and twists in research. I feel fulfilled when I grow together with the whole team and witness their gradual maturation in science, career, and life. I am very proud of the talented trainees in my lab, and would love to see more creative and ambitious young scientists interested in autophagy research in diseases.