By: Eunice Kim
Virginia Man-Yee Lee is a biochemist whose research has been key to understanding the pathologies of neurodegenerative diseases, most notably Alzheimer’s disease. In 1991, she and her husband and longtime collaborator, the late John Q. Trojanowski, were able to determine the origin of “tangles” found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. In healthy individuals, proteins known as tau proteins stabilize and form the internal structures of neurons. In Alzheimer’s, malformed tau proteins tend to aggregate and form tangles, preventing neurons from properly firing, which can eventually lead to cell death. Their work on tau proteins challenged the conventional belief that amyloid beta plaques were at the heart of Alzheimer’s and suggested that tau was also a major player. Their subsequent research demonstrated that tau also has a major role in a group of neurodegenerative disorders known as frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Interestingly, Lee and Trojanowski have also shown that similar aggregates of abnormal, misfolded proteins contribute to the pathogenesis of Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which has important implications in identifying drug targets for various neurodegenerative disorders.
Lee initially studied music at the prestigious Royal Conservatory in London before turning to study chemistry at the Imperial College of London. Upon finishing her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Master’s degree in Biochemistry at the Imperial College of London, she completed her Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She initially developed an interest in neuroscience during a postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. Following a brief stint at Smith-Kline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline), she did a second postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania while simultaneously obtaining an MBA at the Wharton School.
She is currently the John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor of Alzheimer’s Research at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the co-founder and director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as the co-director of the Marian S. Ware Center for Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Program. Lee has won several awards and accolades for her work, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Helis Foundation Award for Parkinson’s and Neurodegenerative Disease Research, and the Robert A. Pritzker Award for Leadership in Parkinson’s Disease Research from the Michael J. Fox Foundation.