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Yajuan Li

MD Anderson Cancer Center

Growing up in Wuhan, China, Yajuan Li was always wild about science, especially biology. But over the years, her focus narrowed even more, to research with the potential to directly improve people’s lives. Now, she concentrates on understanding how RNA molecules made from DNA dark matter — the vast, uncharted stretches of the human genome that don’t code for proteins — can be harnessed to fight human disease.

As a postdoctoral fellow at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Li zeroed in on determining the functions of long noncoding RNAs. One of them, she discovered, could be particularly useful for treating an inherited genetic disease called phenylketonuria, or PKU. 

People with PKU make a mutated version of an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid phenylalanine. They have to be on lifelong restricted diets or the amino acid builds up to toxic levels in their tissues. Li’s team found a long noncoding RNA molecule capable of binding to the enzyme, shape-shifting it into a functional configuration. In lab experiments, Li used these RNA molecules to relieve mice of the worst symptoms of PKU. 

“Long noncoding RNAs are very powerful,” said Li. “They can associate with proteins or with chromatin, and they have many other functions we don’t know about yet, so they offer many different potential therapeutic strategies.”

She’s now a senior research investigator at Incyte, working to develop other types of targeted RNA therapies for cancer and other diseases. 

Her hobby of yoga helped her get through the pandemic. Thankfully, her parents were visiting her sister, an engineer, in another part of China when Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan. But continued travel restrictions mean Li has still not been back to see them in years. She hopes her new job will afford her the opportunity to travel more. “I definitely want to visit as soon as I have the chance,” she said.

— Megan Molteni