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Dr. Valerie Chai Named Director of Center for Genetic Diseases

Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science announces the appointment of molecular biologist Weihang “Valerie” Chai, PhD, as director of the Center for Genetic Diseases. Dr. Chai, who was selected after a national search, joins RFU and its more than 12 research centers and institutes on Jan. 31, 2024.

“Dr. Chai is a top-notch scientist with outstanding leadership qualities — a mentor and role model for our students, for young and mid-career faculty, and a great colleague for our center directors,” said RFU Executive Vice President for Research Ronald Kaplan, PhD. “She’s the ideal person to build the center along new directions — approaching genetic diseases, in part, through a focus on cancer research. The time is ripe in the field for fundamental discoveries that have important clinical applications.”

The directorship, Dr. Chai said, “is a unique opportunity to lead and to further develop the Center for Genetic Diseases, which will focus more on “understanding and finding treatments for genetic disorders through RNA/DNA research.”

“Previously, RNA therapeutics were a challenge because RNA is an unstable molecule,” she said. “But with COVID, the mRNA vaccine totally changed the view of RNA therapeutics, offering an important direction: to not only understand the fundamental mechanism of genetic diseases, but also how we can use RNA as a therapeutic approach to treat those diseases. I think there's great potential.”

Genetic diseases affect one in 10 people in the U.S. Approximately 7,000 rare diseases have been identified, and 80% of those are genetic. Only 5% have treatment options. RFU plans to expand its genetic disease research.

The move to RFU will help Dr. Chai further her research, which includes genomic stability — genomic instability is a hallmark of most cancers — and the inherited eye disorder Coats plus syndrome.

“The two are interconnected,” she said. “The gene that we're working on is a DNA-binding protein complex that is not only essential for preventing Coats, but also important for regulating carcinogenesis. We’re now understanding that genome stability is regulated not only by proteins binding to DNA, but also proteins binding to RNA and how RNA can interfere with genome stability.”

Dr. Chai has served since 2019 as a tenured professor in the Department of Cancer Biology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Prior to that, she was a tenured associate professor for the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University. She earned her doctorate in microbiology from Cornell University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

A standing member of the NIH Molecular Genetics Study Section, Dr. Chai has garnered substantial NIH funding and routinely publishes in top-tier scientific journals. She has held numerous national and international reviewer and editorial positions, including for the NIH, National Cancer Institute and National Science Foundation.

Posted November 16, 2023
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