By Dr Yanling Liao

Portrait photo of Dr LiaoMy name is Dr Yanling Liao, and I am an Associate Professor at New York Medical College, New York, USA. I obtained my PhD in Biochemistry from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NY, and had postdoctoral training in Microbiology & Immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine as well as Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center. The goal of my research is to develop therapies that can improve the quality of life in individuals with the recessive dystrophic form of EB (RDEB).


Which aspect of EB are you most interested in?

I am interested in finding out how the immune system and the process of inflammation are involved in scarring (fibrosis) and how normal skin cells develop into cancer cells in RDEB. Ultimately, this knowledge will allow the development of therapies that target the biological substances involved in these processes to slow down RDEB disease progression.  


Who/what inspired you to work on EB?

My journey into EB research began in 2009 when Dr Mitchell S. Cairo and Dr Angela Christiano organized an EB symposium at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. This event marked the prelude to their umbilical cord blood stem cell transplantation study for pediatric patients with RDEB. At the time, I had just returned from maternity leave following the birth of my baby girl, and I had no prior knowledge of this devastating disease.

Sitting in the symposium, I couldn't help but empathize with the unimaginable pain endured by some babies afflicted with EB and the desperation felt by their parents. I wondered how this disease alters the course of their lives. It was a profoundly moving moment that spurred me to question what role I, as a research scientist, could play in assisting these patients and their families.


What does the funding from DEBRA mean to you?

While EB is a devastating condition, it is relatively rare and has not obtained significant attention in public, as well various funding sources. As a result, securing funding for EB research has been a challenge. The support from DEBRA has been instrumental in enabling me to pursue the research that holds deep personal significance, as I firmly believe it will directly enhance the quality of life for individuals with EB.


What does a day in your life as an EB researcher look like?

Each morning during my commute to work, I contemplate the progress of our research and compile a daily task list. Upon arriving at the lab, I engage in a brief discussion with my lab members to ensure we are all aligned in our objectives. Much of my day is dedicated to scrutinizing results, troubleshooting challenges, and strategizing for our upcoming experiments. I also allocate time for writing up the results we have achieved, so the new knowledge can be published for everyone to see, and writing grant applications so our work can continue to be funded.

Beyond the confines of my computer, one of my favorite activities is working with our models of the disease progression observed in individuals with RDEB, that can be used for the development of potential therapies.


Who’s on your team and what do they do to support your EB research?

Dr Liao and her lab team

Dr Mitchell S. Cairo, Chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at New York Medical College, has been the cornerstone of support for my EB research. Not only did he introduce me to the field of EB research, but he has also been an outstanding mentor and provided generous financial support to foster my career development. Today, I am fortunate to lead a team of dedicated individuals who share my passion for EB research. In the above photo, from the second left to right, we have Jan Pan, a Research Associate responsible for growing cells from skin samples (tissue culture) and lab maintenance. Next is Morgan Anderson-Crannage, a talented PhD student in our lab whose recent single cell RNA sequencing analysis has shed light on the essential role of a specific biological substance called interleukin 1 alpha (IL-1α), in the disease process of RDEB. On the far right is Rahim Hirani, an MD PhD student who recently joined our lab and has a keen interest in developing RDEB therapies.

I am also deeply appreciative of my collaborators and colleagues from various disciplines, Dr Angela Christiano, Dr Jouni Uitto, Dr John McGrath, Dr Alexander Nyström, Dr Andrew South, Dr Ander Izeta, Dr Tero Järvinen and Dr Julie Di Martino. Their generous provision of essential resources and ideas have been instrumental in advancing my EB research endeavors. Being a scientist with an educational background outside of Dermatology, I firmly advocate for the power of multidisciplinary collaborations in driving progress in this field. 


How do you relax when you’re not working on EB?

In my leisure hours, I enjoy reading. Additionally, I love birds. I have four budgies and a conure that have the freedom to fly and roam indoors at home. I like to watch them play, interact with them and enjoy the moments that they perch on my shoulders. I also like to explore new places with my daughter.


What these words mean:

Hematology = the study of blood

Immune system = cells, proteins and organs that are involved in protecting the body from damage

Inflammation = increase of blood flow bringing immune cells and proteins to a damaged part of the body

Interleukin = a type of protein made by cells to change each other’s behaviour

Oncology = the study of cancer

Recessive = a genetic condition inherited from both parents


Full glossary of scientific terms