Around the world and back
UF alum (and Fulbright scholar) working in UF lab before residency
By Shayna Brouker
David Wang, M.D., is “between jobs,” as they say. But he’s not taking any time off.
Wang graduated from UF’s College of Medicine in 2009, but instead of going straight into residency, he became a Fulbright scholar at an HIV clinic in Malawi, Africa.
After a year, he came back to UF to study hepatic adenomas in glycogen storage disease patients while applying to residency programs. His “time off” paid off; next June, he will start a pediatrics residency.
“I wanted to expand my understanding of global health and the practice of medicine at a fundamental level in poor resource settings,” he explained.
In Malawi, where one in seven people have AIDS, he counseled patients on their antiretroviral medicine regimen and gained insight on patient-doctor trust and relationships. He learned how medicine is practiced in a core research setting, without access to advanced medical technology or the latest lab studies.
“The transition from Malawi back to the United States was a shock to the senses at first, but I think both experiences speak strongly to my interests in medicine,” Wang said. “I have a strong interest in public health and advocacy, but I am also fascinated by basic science and research in medicine.”
In stark contrast to his experience in Malawi, both in setting and subject, Wang now studies one of the rarest conditions in the world — glycogen storage disease — in the lab of a leading expert on GSD. David Weinstein, M.D., director of the UF Glycogen Storage Disease Research Program, follows the largest group of GSD patients in the world.
Wang felt drawn to study a rare disease because these conditions lack funding and are often neglected by research companies. Between one in 50,000 and 100,000 babies are born with GSD.
“For anyone with a rare disease, it is frustrating to see research into their conditions advance so slowly,” he said. “Since there is so much more left to be discovered about these diseases, it piques my sense of curiosity.”
There are different types of glycogen storage disease but all stem from one problem: a defective enzyme that doesn’t metabolize stored sugar properly. Normal enzymes break down glucose from food and store it in the form of glycogen to use for energy between meals. Patients with GSD type 1a, the most common variety, lose access to this stored energy soon after eating.
There is no cure, but there is a treatment for patients affected by type 1a: They must consume slow-digesting cornstarch every few hours to survive.
Many children with type 1a develop liver tumors by adulthood as a result of glycogen buildup. Hepatic adenomas are benign but can bleed or become cancerous. After a tumor develops, the patient must have it surgically removed or receive a liver transplant — both invasive operations.
That’s where Wang comes in.
To find better ways to help them, Wang compares GSD patients with and without hepatic adenomas. He’s found the difference is metabolic control. Those who take cornstarch regularly are less likely to develop the tumors.
“New discoveries will undoubtedly improve the quality of life and long-term outcomes of these patients, and the rarity of the disease does not make this any less gratifying,” Wang said.
He is excited to combine the best of both worlds — advocacy and research — in his career as a pediatrician.
“One of the reasons I chose pediatrics as a specialty is because I believe an academic career in pediatrics can combine both of these aspects of medicine and keep me interested and engaged as I progress through training and my future career.”
But first and foremost, he said, he just wants to “help sick kids get better.”