Whitehead alumnus Walter Chen made STAT Wunderkind

November 16, 2020

Tags: Sabatini LabMetabolismAwards + Announcements

Walter Chen, a former graduate student in Whitehead Institute Member David Sabatini’s lab, now a pediatrics resident at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center and a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, has been selected as a 2020 STAT Wunderkind. Every year, science and health news website STAT selects a class of Wunderkinds, intended to be the “next generation of scientific superstars,” from a competitive pool of early career doctors and researchers.

“It is a true honor to be selected as one of the 2020 STAT Wunderkinds and a wonderful recognition of my career thus far as a physician-scientist,” Chen says.

Chen completed the work that earned him selection as a Wunderkind while in Sabatini’s lab, where he investigated mitochondria, cellular structures that produce the energy that powers our cells. Mitochondria serve as hubs of cell metabolism, and so are central to many facets of health and disease. Chen wanted to get a better understanding of what happens metabolically inside of mitochondria, and in order to do that he needed a tool to isolate them both rapidly and specifically from the rest of the cell and then analyze their contents in detail. None of the approaches that existed satisfied Chen’s scientific needs, so he, Sabatini, and collaborators developed a new approach that met their requirements by creating tags for the organelles that antibodies attached to easily-collected beads will latch onto. Chen and colleagues then developed a way to use their method in mice, so that they could get a better look at what happens inside of mitochondria in live animals, rather than in a dish. Using their “MITO-Tag mice,” the researchers could examine mitochondria from specific cell types and in different conditions relevant to understanding metabolism.

Chen, Sabatini—who is also a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—and collaborators have since expanded their approach for isolating and analyzing mitochondria to other important cellular organelles, such as lysosomes and peroxisomes. Meanwhile, other labs have begun to use the tools that they developed in diverse fields, such as cancer biology, neuroscience, plant biology, and microbiology.

“It has been really gratifying to see the toolkit become increasingly popular over the past few years in the biology community, allowing researchers to identify novel ways that organelles participate in normal cellular function and also in various states of disease, such as cancer,” Chen says.

Chen’s future plans include practicing as a neonatologist, caring for newborn infants, and running a lab that studies mitochondria and other organelles with the goal of using his research to make discoveries that will benefit his area of medicine.

“I believe that the research I intend to pursue with our toolkit will lead to significant insights into the physiology of newborn infants, improve their medical care, and also elucidate biology that will be relevant to many other aspects of human physiology and disease,” Chen says.

Looking back on his time at Whitehead Institute, Chen has a deep sense of appreciation.

“I am incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to train with David. His scientific prowess, mentorship, and willingness to let me have the time and resources to find myself scientifically have been instrumental in my growth as a researcher. I also have a special place in my heart for Whitehead Institute for being a truly incredible place for scientific training and exploration.”

Sabatini, Chen’s longtime mentor, has full confidence that Chen will achieve his research and medical goals.

“I am very happy to see Walter’s recognition as a STAT Wunderkind. As a student he pursued and solved big problems in biology and I very much look forward to what is certain to be his great success as a physician-scientist," Sabatini says.

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