Sheng Ding: As Cell Fate Would Have It


When Sheng Ding was applying for graduate school, there was only one person he considered working with: chemical biologist Peter Schultz. Ding, trained as a chemist, saw Schultz’s lab at the Scripps Research Institute as the perfect place to apply his knowledge of organic synthesis to biological problems. “I was certainly narrow-minded,” Ding says. That singular focus almost cost him his PhD position. Ding didn’t show much interest in other faculty members during his interviews at Scripps, and “I heard later on that my evaluation wasn’t very good,” he says. Fortunately, Schultz “rescued that decision.” A decade later, Ding remains at Scripps.

Ding grew up in Beijing, China, on the campus of Peking University with his physician mother and high-energy physicist father. “The environment surrounding me was very much about science,” he says. Ding left China for the...

“I assumed he was a grad student and was surprised to find he was a junior,” says Douglas Rees, a Caltech crystallographer who worked with Ding then. “He was really driven, hard working, and smart.” Caltech chemist and Nobelist Robert Grubbs adds, “He was the guy who was in the lab all the time.”

In 1999, Ding joined Schultz’s lab and applied his chemical know-how to the burgeoning science of stem cells. Ding says he employed a “discovery approach,” developing a vast library of more than 100,000 small molecules and using high-throughput screening to find various compounds that could turn a cell’s developmental clock forward and back. One small molecule turned embryonic stem cells into neurons,1 and another made muscle cells revert back to multipotent progenitors that could be redifferentiated into bone and fat cells.2

Ding, who started his own Scripps lab in 2003, is now working on transforming more than 30 different stem cell developmental pathways. “Wherever we have a reasonable understanding about [a cellular pathway], we’re looking for the molecule that can modulate that process,” he says. Ding, who cofounded a company called Fate Therapeutics in 2007, identified a molecule called “pluripoten” that prevents embryonic stem cells from differentiating,3 and several others that help transform skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells.

Ding’s incredible work ethic allows him to continuously turn chance observations into scientific breakthroughs, says Paul Grayson, president and CEO of Fate Therapeutics. “That’s what really drives him,” he says. “He doesn’t want to look away for even a second.” —Elie Dolgin

Title: Associate Professor of Chemistry, Scripps Research Institute
Age: 34
Representative publications:

1. S. Ding et al., “Synthetic small molecules that control stem cell fate,” Proc Natl Acad Sci, 100:7632–37, 2003. (Cited in 126 papers)
2. S. Chen et al., “Dedifferentiation of lineage-committed cells by a small molecule,” J Am Chem Soc, 126:410–11, 2004. (Cited in 95 papers)
3. S. Yao et al. “Long term self-renewal and directed differentiations of human embryonic stem cells in chemically defined conditions,” Proc Natl Acad Sci, 103:6907–12, 2006. (Cited in 86 papers)

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