In late February 2017, 35-year-old Wang Lin, a professor at Wuhan Union Hospital affiliated with Tongji Medical College at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, was honored with an UNESCO award for women in science for her contributions to the usage of sericin, derived from silk, on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
The jury alternates between honoring those working in life and material sciences, and selects professionals who have contributed significantly to scientific progress.
“In simple terms, our study shows the suitability of sericin, a major component of silk, in biomedical applications such as nervous and soft tissue and skin regeneration,” explains Wang. “We also combined sericin with other biological materials and expanded its applications into more fields.”
“Scientific research itself is an arduous path. People like me who have chosen this road should keep going,” says Wang. “The road ahead is long. We must have strong willpower and resilience to march ahead.” The Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society, dedicated to worldwide advancement of both the science and technology of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, believes that Wang has conducted influential research in the silk medical application field.
Sericin, a protein created by silkworms during the production of silk as well as an important component of silk itself, has a long history in China. Archeological records indicate that silk was cultivated in China as early as the Yangshao period (5000–3000 B.C.). In the simplest terms, sericin is the gum coating the fibers that causes them to stick to each other.
Throughout history, sericin was usually discarded, unlike the highly soughtafter silk that was transported around the world. Today in China alone, an estimated 35,000 tons of sericin is discarded every year, a volume that poses a large threat to the environment, because sericin decomposition requires so much oxygen.
Although some scientists had explored the possibility of using sericin as a green material, its value in tissue engineering and potential application in regenerative medicine has only been discovered in recent years. Wang Lin and her team have been focusing on the usage of sericin in biomedical applications. Most recently, her team used sericin in restorative treatment like repairing damaged peripheral nerves.
Wang entered sericin research by chance. Several years ago, during discussions with her students, Wang realized that not much research on the medical application of sericin had been done anywhere in the world. “Fibroin, the other major protein
component in silk, is widely used in medical applications,” Wang reveals. “We think sericin may also be a treasure trove for medicine.”
It was previously thought that sericin would be rejected by the immune system. By conducting new experiments, Wang and her team overturned this theory. They further discovered that sericin has a unique photoluminescent feature and a gel generation property as well as natural cell adhesion, all characteristics that make it an ideal biological material for tissue repair and regeneration.
After several years of systematic research, Wang and her team successfully extracted pure sericin with a well-preserved protein profile from cocoons. With minimally invasive injections, sericin can repair damaged nerves and is expected to solve several medical challenges. Wang and her team are still conducting experiments today, and research is expected to reach clinical trials within ten years.
“80 Percent of Research Is Setbacks”
“Scientific research is never easy,” admits Wang. “I am by no means smarter than other people. The way I managed to achieve these things is quite simple: I just dive into my work and spend a lot of time on it.” Wang’s daily routine work involves performing experiments, reading research reports, writing essays and participating in group discussions. “Even today, I usually get home from the laboratory at 11:00 p.m. or midnight,” says Wang. “On weekends, I usually go to a café with my laptop, where I read reports in a comparatively relaxing environment.”
In Wang’s opinion, scientific research requires hours of concentration and years of perseverance and hard work. Since Wang and her team began working in this rela- tively new field, they have endured numerous difficulties and failures. For example, when extracting sericin from silk, both its protein profile and biological activity must be well preserved. Thus, Wang and her team must carefully adjust temperatures, reagents and types of cocoons. Because extracting pure sericin involves many variables, a change in a single condition can lead to more than 100 re-tests. “Sometimes, we need to adjust our experimental program constantly,” Wang sighs. “It is a process of trial, feedback, and progress. Honestly, more than 80 percent of my time is spent on setbacks and failures. But I seldom feel frustrated because every small step forward provides plenty of excitement.”
“Work without innovation is useless, and research without practical application is just not as valuable,” Wang declares. She constantly reminds herself that any research results must help patients. Today, she still spends a lot of time following the latest international scientific developments on many subjects including physics, chemistry, and materials science, hoping for inspiration for her own work. “Time spent in researching varies from years to decades, and scientists work not only to improve today’s world, but also the future.”
Return to China
Wang was born into a family of doctors in Hubei Province in 1982. When she was a teenager, she traveled to Germany to study while her father was working on a doctorate there. “My father returned to China after he completed his studies and was determined to serve our country, which influenced me a lot.”
In 2005, after graduating from Wuhan University, Wang went to the United States to work on her doctorate. She served as a researcher at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan. In 2011, Wang returned to China and founded the first Center of Regenerative Medicine in central China in Wuhan Union Hospital.
“The top foreign labs indeed offer higher pay and are better equipped than domestic ones,” Wang admits. “But China now provides strong financial and policy support for scientific research personnel. The country tremendously respects and trusts scientists, especially young scientists. We have great confidence in the country.”
“As China improved both the software and hardware for scientific research, I knew I had to return and make my own contribution to my homeland,” she adds.
May 3, 2017: Wang Lin introduces her team's research paper in Small, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary, international and authoritative journal. by Yu Jian/xinhua
Sericin is a protein created by silkworms during the production of silk, as well as an important component of silk itself. However, throughout history, sericin was usually discarded. IC