Vilcek Foundation Recognizes Yibin Kang

(Published February 22, 2011)

Durham, NC — Yibin Kang, who trained as a graduate student with Bryan Cullen, PhD, in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, was chosen by the Vilcek Foundation to receive its 2011 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, which includes a $25,000 cash award and commemorative plaque, recognizes foreign-born scientists and artists, not more than 38 years old, who have made outstanding contributions in the early stages of their professional careers. Associate Professor Kang’s research focuses on the identification of genes and pathways that control metastasis and their role in the propensity of cancer cells to metastasize to different organs, contributing greatly to the general understanding of the molecular basis of cancer metastasis. The Vilcek Prizes embody the Foundation’s mission to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of foreign-born artists and scientists. “Every year, the Vilcek Prizes bring to light the many ways that immigrants contribute to American society,” said Jan T. Vilcek, President of the Foundation. “These contributions have been instrumental in maintaining the leadership position of the United States in scientific research and in the arts.”

More About Yibin Kang, PhD

One revolution inadvertently inspired Yibin Kang to a life in science; a second pointed to his future in biomedical research. Dr. Kang’s father, forced during China’s Cultural Revolution to abandon his career as a marine biologist, passed on his passion for science to his son. Several years later, the genomic revolution gave the new PhD graduate the opportunity “to address the difficult questions in cancer biology.”

The transformation of this self-described shy boy from a small town in rural China to Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and Member of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey is bracketed between those two vastly different circumstances. Born in 1973 in Fujian Province, Dr. Kang’s scientific skills were apparent early. As a student of the Experimental Science Class in Peking University High School, he won the top prizes in the National Chemistry Competition. But chemistry gave way to genetics when, as an undergraduate at Fudan University in Shanghai, Dr. Kang recalls first being “fascinated by the potential … power of genetics to tackle human diseases.”

His research direction chosen, in 1995 Dr. Kang turned toward the West for his graduate studies. Enrolling first at Michigan State University, he transferred a year later to Duke University, where he worked in the laboratory of renowned virologist Dr. Bryan Cullen. As the only graduate student in the group, Dr. Kang proved early he could hold his own among his colleagues, all highly successful postdocs.   Dr. Kang completed his graduate studies in less than four years, and as part of his thesis work solved an important problem in virology relating to the export of viral genomic RNA. His success in studying virus-host interactions inspired him to tackle an even more difficult question: How do tumor cells turn against their hosts and eventually kill the cancer patients.

It was now 2000, and the genomic revolution was underway. Dr. Kang joined the lab of Dr. Joan Massagué at the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Dr. Massagué gave his ambitious new colleague free rein to pursue the molecular mechanism of cancer metastasis  even though no research of this sort had ever been attempted in his lab, and Dr. Kang had limited background in cancer research and no experience in genomics. It was faith well placed, for Dr. Kang in short order devised a functional genomic strategy for identifying and analyzing breast cancer metastasis genes, a major breakthrough in the field.

In 2004, Dr. Kang was invited to join the faculty at Princeton. Considered by some a bold move, because the university had no medical school, Dr. Kang saw it as an “ideal opportunity,” believing he could “make a difference and contribute to the lofty goal of conquering cancer through innovative research and teaching in cancer biology.”

The difference he is making can be read in the more than fifty original articles he has published in leading journals such as Cell, Cancer Cell, and Nature Medicine.  Dr. Kang’s research has provided novel insights into the mysterious process of cancer metastasis, and identified several key molecules that allow tumor cells to negotiate their way from the primary lesion to distant organs such as bone and lung. His contributions may be counted, in part, in the numerous prestigious awards he has won, among them an AIMM-ASBMR John Haddad Young Investigator Award, an American Cancer Society Scholar Award, and a Department of Defense Era of Hope Scholar Award. In 2008, Dr. Kang was elected to the Board of Directors of the Metastasis Research Society; in 2009, the Champalimaud Foundation named him one of three leading metastasis researchers; and in 2010, he received the inaugural Oudang Distinguished Lectureship Award of the Korean Pharmaceutical Society.