Research Update from 2019 accelerators winner Arwen Gao, PhD

In 2019, accelerators project donors helped the mito community make history at the first ever Big Pitch event at the UMDF Symposium on Mitochondrial Medicine 2019. For the prize, three pre-selected post-doctoral finalists each gave a 5-minute pitch of their research projects. UMDF accelerator donor households (each having given a minimum of $500 that year) voted on their favorite project. It was the first time that donors ever had their say in UMDF prize-winning research.

Dr. Arwen Gao, then of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, was voted as the 2019 accelerators top prize winner. Dr. Gao’s project would identify novel compounds that could increase the amount of mitochondria and/or activate identified pathways in lab-based cell models. Future work with top compound candidates could potentially pave the way toward the development of novel drugs targeting rare mitochondrial diseases.

Arwen Gao, PhD received the most votes from accelerators in 2019. Originally planned as a $50,000 grant, accelerator donors stepped up and committed to fund all three finalists and increase Dr. Gao’s top award to $75,000.


The halting of research across the globe during the COVID pandemic also affected the momentum of Dr. Gao’s project. Nevertheless, she was able to launch and with the help of PhD student, Amélia Lalou, the project identified two top compounds that helped to increase C. elegans worm lifespan and increase their late-in-life movement abilities. Work is still being done on these compounds to see the effects on cells derived from patients.

During her postdoctoral training, Dr. Gao worked on several projects focused on mitochondrial stress response, as well as the role of lysosomes and their functions in stress response and longevity. The work of her 2019 winning accelerator project continues today under the direction and support of Prof. Johan Auwerx.

In June 2022, Dr. Gao took an Assistant Professorship with Amsterdam UMC. In her new role, she has more opportunities to work on translational research projects, and she’s excited to see her research have an impact in clinical settings. She is continuing her work on lysosomes and their mediation of and activation of the mitochondrial stress response. Read more about her most recent work in this September 2023 article published in Cell Discovery:

Dr. Gao credits her motivation to continue work in rare metabolic disease and her passion to see her work impact patients to her attendance at UMDF’s Symposium on Mitochondrial Medicine in 2019. As she said, it was the first time that she had ever met patients living with mitochondrial disease. She was inspired by their posters and the mito patient community’s commitment to advancing research and medicine. Dr. Gao has great hopes to assist with discoveries and even gene therapies that might have a direct impact on the health of rare disease patients in Amsterdam – impact that could change the lives of patients around the world.

Watch Arwen’s Video Update Here: