Jianjie Ma is giddy, almost childlike in his enthusiasm when explaining his complex work on super healing and reversing aging.
In the lab, his steps are quick and light, and his words come in torrents.
“In our laboratory, we always start with what nature gives us,” he said. “In this environment, we have to be innovative and create.”
The 47-year-old biophysicist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey is one of the school’s top researchers, focused on the seemingly sci-fi concepts of super healing and age reversal, as well as the regeneration of body parts and cancer drugs guided like smart bombs.
Already well known for a string of molecular discoveries, Ma was recently recognized by the Journal of Biological Chemistry, with findings twice voted by his peers as “papers of the week.”
Now he is taking perhaps his biggest discovery so far, and building a drug company around it.
“Translational medicine — that’s the whole point of everything we do,” Ma explained. “All of our basic research we’ll someday have to translate to human health.”
Ma grew up in inland China, the son of farmers. But his aptitude for learning — particularly in science — rocketed him to high levels of education. Eventually he earned a trip to the United States as one of China’s top students.
Currently a researcher at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Ma and his lab team have spent years studying the roles of proteins, following leads like detectives of the microscopic. Their early research looked at skeletal muscle and how calcium plays a role in atrophy and aging. Then in 2006, they published a study showing cells in older mice were essentially leaking calcium — causing a natural aging process and inefficient muscle function.
Ma and his team identified and isolated a naturally occurring protein that suggested the aging process could possibly be reversed through future drugs. They subsequently gained worldwide attention after they identified the protein MG53 as a key initiator of membrane repair in damaged tissue, in the first study to specifically pinpoint a protein responsible for promoting cell repair.
The protein is one that all humans, mice and other mammals have. It’s a molecule at the forefront of repairing any and all injuries — from normal wear and tear of individual cells to widespread catastrophic trauma.
The lab work shows the protein’s importance under the microscope: A single needle prick completely deflates and kills a cell without the protein. But a cell bolstered with MG53 quickly recovers, repairing its torn outer layer at an accelerated rate.
Ma and the lab first published their discovery in 2009 in Nature Cell Biology, but they published refined findings in a recent Journal of Biological Chemistry, as well as the American Journal of Physiology — Cell Physiology.
The research has gotten notice. Sungchul Ji, an associate professor at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University, researches molecular theory in the living cell. Though he doesn’t know Ma personally, the work intrigues him.
“This is the future direction — to go down to the molecular level,” Ji said. “His findings are very exciting.”
Peter Amenta, dean of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, described it as ground-breaking.
“Work produced in the lab of Dr. Jianjie Ma is very exciting and may change how we treat a number of diseases in the next few years,” he said.
Ma called most of the findings serendipity.
“But we all follow our intuition,” he added.
The research is now at the heart of a new drug company that is performing the first trials of an MG53 therapy on mice. While the patent for the research belongs to UMDNJ, the university granted TRIMedicine — headquartered in North Brunswick — a license to work on an application of the drug.
The company is already several years into developing what’s proving so far to be a natural super-healer of cells in mice.
Ma and his colleagues envision it in various applications — as a topical, an injection or even supplement protecting cells — like those of the heart — from regular deterioration.
Noah Weisleder, the chief scientific officer for the company and a protégé of Ma’s, said though nine out of 10 biotech companies eventually miss their mark, TRIMedicine has already shown that the biological potential extends beyond a single disease or condition.
“While many therapeutic agents can only realistically target a small handful of diseases, MG53 has potential for a vast number of different diseases where tissue degeneration contributes to the progression of the disease,” Weisleder said. “Thus, even if we do not see efficacy in humans with one particular disease, there are many other targets that we can pursue.”
The company is proceeding with the FDA drug-approval process, backed by a combination of grants and venture capital.
“If we can fix this gene, we can heal faster and live a better life,” Ma said.
Two members of Ma’s lab, meanwhile, are even starting to make names for themselves. Weisleder, a detail-oriented researcher who’s worked with Ma for several years, was voted the 2011 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation Outstanding Postdoctoral Entrepreneur last month. Xiaoli Zhao, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ma lab, was given the American Heart Association’s Young Investigator Award recently.
Such awards are one goal of the lab’s teamwork, along with the specific ambitions of their research and the drug company, Ma said.
“We will be remembered by how our students perform,” he said. “I just want to train a scientist that’s better than me.”