Core Fulbright US Scholar Patrick Lang Takes an International Approach to Medicine

May 10, 2018

Patrick Lang. Photo by Will Owens, courtesy of UNC Graduate School.

As a young boy growing up in rural China near the Russian border, Patrick Lang couldn’t have dreamed the life he’s leading now. With his Ph.D. in hand, Lang is finishing his medical degree, and will soon travel to France to work on new approaches to treat lung cancer.

In the department of cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, Lang completed his doctoral research on medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer. Lang’s work focused on the development of a therapeutic targeting a specific protein found in these tumors, treating the cancer and avoiding the harsh side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Such work was unimaginable when he was a child growing up in the Heilongjiang Province, located in the mountains of northern China. Raised by his grandmother, Lang lived without electricity, paved roads or running water. He worked in the fields like most everyone else in his small village. He now traces his interest in medicine to the death of his grandfather, who had a heart attack and died later that same night.

“I remember when my grandfather died, being frustrated by the lack of care available to him,” Lang said. “There was not really any medicine aside from traditional folk medicine which, frankly, didn’t work too well. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I thought there had to be more.”

He moved to the United States at age 10 and was reunited with his parents who had already immigrated to America. In just a few years – after learning English – Lang was admitted into the prestigious Illinois Science and Math Academy.

Originally, he said he saw academics, science and medicine as a way to fit into a new culture.

“At that age, like a lot of people, I didn’t feel like I really fit in or belonged, but having something like science – something that seemed universally accepted as being good – was very attractive to me,” Lang said.

During high school he was exposed to laboratory science for the first time. Each week, he would take a bus an hour and a half into Chicago to work in the lab of Paul Carvey at Rush University, studying Parkinson’s disease.

“I loved the idea of discovering something that no one had ever seen before,” Lang said. “For someone like me, that was alien. What they were doing in the lab was magic. I came from a place where that literally did not exist.”

As an undergraduate at Duke, he continued his research work but was also exposed to clinical medicine. Ultimately, he decided to pursue an M.D. and Ph.D.

“I really just could not make up my mind which path I wanted to take, so I took that as an indication that I should probably do both,” Lang said.

At the UNC School of Medicine, he completed his doctoral research in medulloblastoma, the most common childhood brain cancer, and second most common childhood cancer. It is currently treated with a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Lang thought there must be a better way.

“We are talking about the brains of children, which were being treated using these very nonspecific treatments,” Lang said. “So we see high morbidity, but also growth delays, brain impairment and problems with the endocrine system.”

His research has taken him around the world to speak at international conferences. It will now lead him to l’Institut Pasteur de Lille in Lille, France, for 10 months of research, funded by a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar award. The Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program offers nearly 500 teaching and research awards in 125 countries. Unlike the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which offers funding to undergraduates, the Core Fulbright program is meant for post-doctoral researchers and faculty. Lang is the first Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar from the UNC School of Medicine since 2010.

Read more on the School of Medicine website.

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu