Stroke breakthroughs 25 years in the making

Dr. Yu Tian Wang began by looking inside brain cells. Now his work could protect the brain from stroke damage
Dr. Yu Tian Wang in his lab at UBC

Dr. Yu Tian Wang wants to keep your brain cells alive. More than 25 years ago, he started looking inside those cells, researching the neural pathways that can lead to cell death following stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other brain conditions.


Piece by piece, he built an understanding of those microscopic processes — and how they might be disrupted.

Today that basic research has resulted in four new brain medications in various stages of development. One, NA-1, is currently being tested on stroke patients.

Heart & Stroke donors have supported this research journey since 1994.

Basic research sets the stage

Dr. Wang, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, holds the Heart & Stroke BC & Yukon Chair in Stroke Research. He is now a world leading expert on why brain cells die. 

He was a young scientist at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital and the University of Toronto when he received his first research grant from Heart & Stroke. Against tough competition, his application persuaded a panel of peer reviewers that his proposal had potential to expand our understanding of brain health.

That first Heart & Stroke grant was followed by more as Dr. Wang’s research progressed and he was recruited to UBC. His current chair award recognizes his status as a senior scientist, allowing him dedicated time for research.

Dr. Wang’s achievements illustrate the value of supporting researchers in their early careers, says Mary Elizabeth Harriman, director of research and partnerships for Heart & Stroke.

Also, she adds, his work provides examples of how basic science discoveries involving cells and molecules can be translated into treatments for disease — in this case, to reduce brain damage resulting from stroke. 

Successful translation like this is relatively rare, she says. Many basic science discoveries stall in what some call the “valley of death,” when funding dries up before their full potential can be realized.

Protecting the brain after stroke

So Heart & Stroke donors can take pride in Dr. Wang’s research. But how does it help someone who has had a stroke?

One example is his work on NA-1, a peptide that blocks the release of a neurotoxin called glutamate after a stroke. Glutamate causes brain cells to die.

NA-1 was originally developed in Toronto by neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Tymianski, who also has Heart & Stroke funding. He called on Dr. Wang because he had developed a stroke animal model. 

“We moved their research from a culture dish into a real live animal model,” says Dr. Wang. This was difficult work that involved simulating human-like strokes in mice. “At that time, our lab was the only lab that could do this.”

Clinical trials for NA-1 are now underway using paramedics to give the drug to patients before they even reach the hospital. It could be on the market in just a few years. The trials are led by Dr. Jim Christenson, another Heart & Stroke researcher who is an expert in emergency medicine. 

Our lab was the only lab that could do this

Dr. Yu Tian Wang Heart & Stroke researcher

Mary Elizabeth Harriman notes that this collaboration among researchers illustrates a growing trend in research funding — and a deliberate strategy for Heart & Stroke. More research dollars will be directed to projects that increase their potential for success by involving interdisciplinary teams that bring different perspectives to work on big problems.

More medications

Meanwhile, Dr. Wang is hard at work on three other drugs. By targeting neuronal death pathways at different steps, these medications can work synergistically to help prevent brain cell death.

In his lab, he stays focused on the time consuming but important work of basic neuroscience research, understanding neural pathways and finding targets for protecting brain health. “My lab continues working on animal models and fundamental research to look for a new generation of drugs.”

Learn more about Heart & Stroke research.
Learn more about stroke prevention and treatment.