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It is the apples in his uncle's refrigerator that Voot Yin recalls most about his long, harrowing escape from Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. First he, his three siblings and their mother escaped to a Thai refugee camp, then traveled on to the Philippines, California, New York, eventually reaching their final destination in Hartford, Conn., where they arrived late at night, all their belongings stuffed into a single carry-on suitcase. What he remembers to this day are those Red Delicious apples and sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to take them back to the room where the entire family was sleeping.
“I hid them under my pillow. I was so afraid they wouldn't be there when I woke up,” he says. “I never take anything for granted.”
He started school without being able to speak English, and spent years being told what he wouldn't be able to do.
“I was not big enough, I was not smart enough, I didn't speak English,” he says. “An early lesson I learned is that with a lot of work, there's nothing you can't achieve.”
Now Yin is an assistant professor of regenerative biology at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and recently achieved the American dream, co-founding a startup company earlier this year with lab Director Kevin Strange. Novo Biosciences Inc. is the first spinoff in MDIBL's 115-year history. It will focus on developing a therapeutic compound to help speed tissue healing and stimulate the regeneration of lost and damaged body parts in zebrafish, with the aim of eventually translating it for use in humans.
“He's the first faculty member I recruited,” says Strange. “I thought it would be hard to get first-rate people to Maine.”
Yin had two other job offers at the time, including at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine. Strange wanted Yin because he is an entrepreneur, a risk-taker and is willing to think outside the box and try something different to build a science career and an institution.
Yin describes himself as incredibly ambitious, and says he's not afraid to fail. “I want to be 10 steps ahead of where I'm really at,” he says.
Like Strange, he was attracted to MDIBL to participate in the growth of a regenerative center and build it from the ground up.
“Plus I knew coming to Maine that my family would have a chance to experience a normal childhood,” says Yin, who has two young daughters and did his undergraduate studies at Bates College.
He saw a kindred spirit in Strange.
“Two things stuck me about Kevin when I met him. He has a vision and a plan to make it a reality. Most people don't have both,” says Yin. “And his personality is such that he sees around the corner before there's a bend in the road.”
Yin adds that Strange isn't afraid to acknowledge when he doesn't know something, and to learn and take on new responsibility.
Strange wasn't looking for a new job when he was approached by MDIBL. He had a tenured faculty position at Vanderbilt University, but admits he was getting tired of corporate academia.
“I was attracted here by the opportunity to build a 21st century research institution. I looked at Maine as a place that had a lot of capacity to do new things. It was an open field,” he says.
VIDEO: How Strange would invest a $10 million grant to his company.
He adds that translating the lab's science to industry is critical for him.
“Science and discovery interface with industry here,” he says. “The startup [Novo Biosciences] was my first demonstration that we could do that.”
He says if he had tried to launch a startup at a large organization, it either wouldn't have happened or taken a lot longer. At MDIBL, it took about two months.
Strange says MDIBL has had enormous problems to overcome, most poignantly the blow to federal science funding caused by the sequester. But after running the lab for four years, he says it is much farther along than he had thought he could get it in nine to 10 years.
“MDIBL's remarkable success in this extremely difficult funding and economic climate is due in no small way to the efforts of our outstanding faculty and staff and to the steadfast commitment of a great group of supporters and benefactors,” he says.
The lab has pulled in $83 million in grants over the last several years and in late September it grabbed another $13 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will create 10 new positions and sustain 16 existing ones at MDIBL. About 86% of the new, five-year award is to be spent in Maine.
And while goals call for MDIBL to expand from six laboratories to 15 in six-to-seven years, that depends on what happens with the government funding, Strange says.
Strange's lab is focused on Alzheimer's disease, but he says there are countless disease states and as we age, the ability to repair ourselves decreases precipitously, so the research at MDIBL potentially can be applied broadly to look at why the repair function decreases and what might be done to stop or reverse it.
“I look for things that are challenging in my personal life and career,” Strange says. “My threshold for boredom is very low.”
In 1999, while still at Vanderbilt, Strange decided to use a new model system, the tiny worm C. elegans, for his research. Some of his colleagues told him he was out of his mind.
“But the more people attack you and the more viciously, the more chance you are on the right track,” he notes, saying that research switch was successful.
Outside work, he planned to climb Denali when he turned 50, but a back problem stopped him. He likes to kayak and hike as well as work in the garden. When asked how he would describe what it's like being on Mount Desert Island during the winter, he says, “This isn't Ice Station Zebra.”
The remote, eastern location didn't daunt Yin either.
“I was shocked by the short daylight hours in the winter rather than the cold,” he says. “The tranquility allows me to think quite deeply about science.”
He loves the outdoors, and spends a lot of time hiking and doing yard work on his 20-acre property. His favorite thing to do in Maine is to visit Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park and stare out into the ocean.
“It's better in the winter. It's very peaceful,” he says.
Three years after coming to the lab, Yin says he's moderately happy with the results so far. He has people in the lab well versed in the necessary research techniques, they are able to screen for small compounds that are active in regeneration and MDIBL is recruiting additional faculty.
He hadn't envisioned starting a company, but speaks excitedly about its promise. “The potential of our compound could have an impact on overall health care in Maine,” he says.
The compound, ZF143, is naturally occurring and dramatically speeds the rate of tissue regeneration and repair of heart, bones and other tissue. It has been in Phase I clinical trials elsewhere for a different application, and already passed toxicity tests, which are the most common cause of early drug failures.
“It's been tested in humans at a much higher concentration than we use to activate the regenerative process,” Yin says. He emphasizes that the company is in very early stages and is first looking a model that will simulate heart injury from a heart attack.
In a new project, he is trying to create an extended hyperglycemia state in fish. When a person has diabetes, their body cannot break down high glucose levels.
“We're trying to recreate a similar situation in the adult zebrafish,” he explains. “Diabetic patients can't heal wounds properly. We see that in the zebrafish as well. So we're trying to understand how that happens and how to correct it.”
Says Yin, “Our overall goal in the lab is to break down the genetic circuit that allows that process [regeneration] to happen.”