Xiangzhong Yang, widely known as Jerry, a stem cell scientist, cloning pioneer, professor of animal science, and director of UConn’s Center for Regenerative Biology, died on Feb. 5 after a long battle with cancer. He was 49.
Internationally recognized for his research in animal embryo transfer and embryo biotechnology, Yang was probably best known for cloning Amy, a Holstein calf born in UConn’s Kellogg Dairy Center on June 10, 1999. Amy was the first cloned farm animal in the United States.
Yang’s research in practical animal biotechnology also led to many other contributions. He showed, for example, that early concerns that clones would age prematurely were false, and the Food and Drug Administration relied heavily on Yang’s work when it found that meat and dairy products from cloned farm animals were safe to eat and drink.
Yang never forgot his roots in rural China. He formed a non-profit company that ships embryos, created by in vitro fertilization of eggs taken from U.S. dairy cows with sperm taken from high potential U.S. bulls, to China. There they are brought to term in surrogate mother cows, in an effort to increase the milk production of Chinese dairy herds.
Yang was also devoted to improving collaboration between scientists in the U.S. and his native country, and he helped found the China Bridges program that sends American scientists to teach in China.
He was born and raised on a farm in the village of Dongcun, about 300 miles south of Beijing. He survived famine in 1959 and 1960. As a teenager, he was resigned to becoming a swine herdsman when the government reintroduced college entrance exams at the end of the Cultural Revolution. His scores made him among the 1 percent of applicants who were admitted into the prestigious Beijing Agricultural University in 1978.
Once there, he scored highly on a second test that won him the opportunity to pursue a college degree in the United States. He came to the U.S. in 1983 on a prestigious national fellowship and received his MS and Ph.D. degrees at Cornell University.
He excelled as an embryologist at Cornell and, following postdoctoral training in animal biotechnology, was offered a position as program director in Cornell’s animal science department, with responsibility for developing an animal biotechnology program.
In June 1996, the year that Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland, Yang joined the faculty at UConn as associate professor of animal science and head of the Biotechnology Center’s Transgenic Animal Facility. Three years later, he announced the arrival of Amy.
By 2000, Yang had been promoted to the rank of full professor. A year later, he was appointed founding director of the University’s new Center for Regenerative Biology with five new faculty, charged with investigating areas of basic science in the growing field of regenerative biology and medicine.
Yang laid the groundwork for an attempt to clone a human embryo, in the hope of creating embryonic stem cells that are an exact match of patients’ cells. The vision is that stem cells derived from a patient’s own cells would enable doctors to treat a host of diseases, ranging from cancer to Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
A strong advocate of stem cell research, Yang was appointed to the state Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, established following passage of the Stem Cell Investment Act in 2005.
The legislation made Connecticut the third state in the nation to provide public funding in support of embryonic and human adult stem cell research.
His efforts helped promote understanding of the use of stem cells as therapies in clinical settings and put UConn on the leading edge of stem cell science. His battle with cancer forced him to take medical leave in 2007.
“Jerry was an inspiration to us all, both personally and professionally,” says Dr. David Goldhamer, associate professor of molecular and cell biology and interim director of the Center for Regenerative Biology. “I have never known anyone to fight so hard, while maintaining such optimism and hope for the future.
“This is a tremendous personal loss for all who knew him, and we can all learn from his sheer determination and love of life,” Goldhamer adds.
“The scientific community owes him an immense debt of gratitude for his pioneering work and passionate advocacy of stem cell research.”
Yang is survived by his wife, Xiuchun (Cindy) Tian, an associate professor of animal science at UConn, their son Andrew, his parents Wukui and Fengrong, three brothers and a sister.
A public memorial service will be held on Friday, Feb. 20, at 10 a.m. in the Rome Commons Ballroom.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in memory of Yang for a purpose to be designated by his family. Please make checks payable to The UConn Foundation Inc., with “in honor of Dr. Jerry Yang” in the memo line, and send to the UConn Foundation, 2390 Alumni Drive U-3206, Storrs, CT 06269-3206.