Heart disease is the number-one killer in the U.S. — but what if there was a way to regenerate healthy heart cells? Cue UNC-Chapel Hill’s Li Qian, who received the 2019 Hettleman Prize for Scholarly and Artistic Achievement for her groundbreaking work in cardiac reprogramming.

Li Qian is used to surprising people. When her revolutionary research on cardiac reprogramming first hit the science community, it was difficult for her to convince others of her findings.

“I still remember back before our first Nature paper, I talked about the study at international meetings and faced a lot of doubt — questions, concerns, and probably some suspicion. It was pretty tough. People’s attitude was, How could that be possible? This is too good to be true.”

No one doubts her now. The Qian Lab at the McAllister Heart Institute is changing the fate of damaged heart cells, transforming them from “non-beating” scar tissue cells into “beating” muscle cells. Qian’s interest in the heart can be traced back to the research of her Ph.D. mentor, Rolf Bodmer.

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Originally published Nov. 4, 2019.