‘Health shall have no borders:’ ISB’s Dr. Qiang Tian Joins Shanghai’s National Research Center for Translational Medicine

Qiang Tian, MD, PhD

At the turn of the century, Dr. Qiang Tian signed on as a postdoctoral fellow with legendary scientist Dr. Lee Hood. He was in for a wild ride.

In 2000, Hood co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), where Tian became the institute’s first-ever postdoc. In the nearly two decades since, Tian ascended to become a senior research scientist at ISB and chief science officer of the ISB spinout P4 Medicine Institute (P4Mi), and he has been an ISB stalwart and champion of science, systems thinking, collaboration, and revolutionizing health care.

“Qiang is a good scientist, he is wonderfully optimistic, and he always has new ideas about strategic partnerships,” Hood said. “I hope he will continue to interact with me, ISB and P4Mi in all of these regards in the future.”

March 31 is Tian’s last day at ISB. He is returning to China for a leadership role with the National Research Center for Translational Medicine, and will remain an affiliate ISB professor.

Tian’s impact on ISB is undeniable. Read on for a Q&A to learn more about his history at ISB, his new role in Shanghai, his prediction for health care going forward, and more.

ISB: As scientific director and chief science officer at P4 Medicine Institute and as a senior research scientist at ISB, You have been instrumental in the expansion and practice of P4 medicine. What have been your major highlights along the way?

Dr. Qiang Tian: The best decision I’ve ever made, other than marrying my wife, was to postdoc with Dr. Lee Hood at the turn of the century when he was about to start a “big new thing,” which officially became known as ISB shortly after my commitment. As it turned out, the systems strategy to biology and medicine pioneered by ISB, coupled with my prior training in 20th century medicine and an innate drive for building collaborations, converged to shape my career toward translational research, and more recently, clinical applications for P4 medicine.

Major highlights at ISB include:

  • Building well-funded translational projects through assembling winning interdisciplinary teams.
  • Working with the right people at the right time on the right projects have been both productive and fun.
  • Lee opened up the world of systems biomedicine and provided thought leadership throughout.
  • Talented ISB colleagues, in particular in technology development and data analytics, enabled the establishment of ambitious provocative programs.
  • Collaborating physician-scientists provided much needed clinical motivations. I view myself as a facilitator in building these relationships. Having had the good fortune of being trained in both medicine and research, I was luckily positioned to bridge the gaps between scientists and clinicians across institutions and across borders.
  • Knowing that my works here have been cited roughly 15,000 times by peers around the world is satisfying.

Taking the helm as chief science officer at P4Mi provided me a new perspective and platform for bringing systems strategies and technologies into a clinical setting. Practitioners long for systems tools for improved care of both diseased and well individuals. P4Mi has just launched the world’s first P4 Clinic integrating multi-omics, functional testing, imaging and physician counseling to prevent disease, enhance daily performance, and reduce biological aging. The long term goal is to establish P4 medicine as a new medical specialty. A number of exciting P4 programs are being launched right now tailoring the needs of different populations.

ISB: What is your new role? What will you be doing?

Dr. Tian: I will be CEO of technological platforms at the National Research Center for Translational Medicine in Shanghai. I will build an integrated systems platform with technologies in genomics, proteomics, drug screening, molecular diagnostics, etc., to better serve both translational research and clinical trials to be hosted at the center and beyond. My hope is to establish broad collaborations with academic, biopharmaceutical, and global partners like ISB, P4Mi, Providence, UW and beyond.

ISB: Your new role will be based in Shanghai. How do you feel about returning to China, and what will you miss about Seattle?

Dr. Tian: For the first 25 years of my life, I grew up in China and was trained to be a clinician; the second 25 years of my life I was trained to be a molecular systems biologist. I spent my entire academic career at ISB and P4Mi. With my parents and relatives living in China and my wife and daughter residing in the U.S., I feel obligated to bring together these two places that I love deeply.

I am not much into politics. However, I do believe that patients from all over the world need better diagnosis, treatment, new drugs for their diseases, and better knowledge to improve their health. Whoever has the skill and knowledge shall contribute to that common goal. Science shall have no borders; health shall have no borders.

In addition to the natural beauty that some Seattleites take for granted, I will certainly miss all the talent around us, especially the world-class data scientists, technologists and clinicians that ISB and other institutions attract to this region. Another thing I will miss is the entrepreneurship of the Pacific Northwest: There have been so many exciting ventures born here. I do intend to come back as frequently as my job allows since I’ll certainly miss all the ISB symposia, retreats, research-in-progress presentations, discussion groups, parties, pies, and my pingpong buddies.

ISB: How do you think health care will change in the near future? In the next 5-10 years? Beyond?

Dr. Tian: Key change will be the transition from disease care to the care of both the healthy and diseased. Also, people will take a more proactive role in maintaining their health, as opposed to relying mainly on the subsidized health care system. Being able to predict and prevent diseases will vastly impact the quality of life; personalized treatment and lifestyle counseling based on one’s molecular makeup will greatly improve clinical outcome, and in the long run (maybe longer than 5-10 years) help save the health care systems in both the developed and developing world — perhaps more so in the latter given the limited resources and craving for better, affordable care.

ISB: What have you learned in your time at ISB?

Dr. Tian: Think big, think outside of the box, be willing to challenge your comfort zone to assimilate interdisciplinary expertise.

ISB has attracted exceptional talent in systems biomedicine from all over the world, and diversity matters.

I also learned to appreciate our administrative staff who are truly world class — professional, efficient, always willing to help scientists to advance their cutting-edge research; they shall be given all the due respect and credit that often go to the star scientists.

ISB: Who have been the mentors and notable peers who have shaped your time at ISB?

Dr. Tian: Lee has been my mentor throughout my career, and a role model throughout my life. In the earlier days of ISB, Ruedi Aebersold was a co-mentor when I joined as ISB’s first postdoctoral fellow. I have greatly enjoyed interactions with many in the Hood group. I was exhilarated when I learned that Jim Heath was going to lead ISB, as if he was answering my call in an email I sent him years ago. I have established lasting relationships with several faculty groups — several of them (Heath, Nathan Price, Ilya Shmulevich, Rob Moritz) visited my future work place in Shanghai. I do have high hopes that some of these collaborations will evolve both in the U.S. and in China.

I want to stress that Chris Lausted, Gustavo Glusman, and Lee Rowan — whom I have known and worked with for almost 20 years — together we have planned numerous lab events and to a certain extent helped cultivate the lab culture (for better or for worse).

Finally I will never forget my Chinese “gang” here — Qin Shizhen, Yong Zhou, Min Pan, etc. — with whom we have had endless laughs at the lunch table.

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