Envisioning His Future

Qing Zhang earns a Jefferson-Pilot Fellowship in Academic Medicine for his work understanding oxygen’s role in therapy-resistant tumors.

By Carleigh Gabryel, carleigh.gabryel@unchealth.unc.edu

Growing up in a remote countryside of China, Qing Zhang, PhD, assistant professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, wasn’t expected to pursue higher education. His parents never finished junior high school, but when Zhang showed early promise in academics, they supported him completely.

His love for biology began in college and his interest in cancer research was piqued in graduate school. Today his lab works to understand hypoxia—the deficiency of oxygen—in radiation and chemotherapy-resistant tumors. Because of the promise of his research, Zhang received a Jefferson-Pilot Fellowship Award, which is given annually to promising junior faculty at the UNC School of Medicine to explore new ideas in research, teaching or clinical treatment.  We sat down with Zhang for a Five Questions feature to learn more about what sparked his interest in research, how he came to UNC, and what he hopes the future will bring.

Why did you decide to pursue academics?

Where I grew up most people normally didn’t even go to high school, let alone college or graduate school. I was not born into being a scientist, but my parents wanted me to have a good opportunity for higher education.

My early years of school were difficult because my vision was impaired, but my family didn’t have many resources so glasses weren’t available. I always sat in the front row of class but I still couldn’t really see what the teacher was writing on the blackboard. Other students mocked me for my bad vision, but that just made me try harder in school. I learned to listen intently and ended up teaching myself some lessons.

I exceled at academics and that took me to Wuhan University. The focus I developed in grade school helped me do well in difficult chemistry and biology college courses. I learned about biology research being done in the U.S. and by the middle of my college career I decided I wanted to attend graduate school there. Despite having limited exposure to lab experiments at Wuhan, I worked hard enough to be accepted to the University of Pittsburgh.

How did you become interested in cancer research?

I never intended to study cancer because I wasn’t exposed to much cancer research early in my career, but that’s where my mentors made a difference. My PhD mentor, Jennifer Grandis, MD, was a phenomenal physician-scientist performing head and neck cancer research at the University of Pittsburgh, who is now continuing her work at the University of California, San Francisco. She instilled in me the importance of cancer research, and I watched her translate what we learned from the bench to the bedside to help cancer patients. The lessons I learned from Grandis, coupled with terrific leadership from my postdoctoral mentor William Kaelin Jr., MD, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, led me to decide that I would dedicate my life to cancer research.

Today my research is mainly focused on oxygen-sensing pathways. Imagine that a tumor grows like a ball. When it gets bigger and bigger the center gets further away from blood vessels, which means a lack of oxygen, or hypoxia. When treated with chemo or radiation you would kill most of the oxygen-rich tumor on the periphery, but it is difficult to treat the center of the tumor that is oxygen-deprived. That hypoxia contributes to the radiation or chemo-resistant tumors in patients; and those leftover tumors in a hypoxic area could become malignant and metastasize in different organs. The fundamental question we’re trying to understand is how hypoxia signaling can contribute to tumor progression, and how we can design strategies to target this hypoxia signaling in cancer treatment.

What brought you to UNC?

When I was applying for jobs I wanted an academic position at a renowned university with strong research communities. I got offers from several places, but some important factors made me choose UNC. This institution has a terrific, collaborative research environment. People work together as a team well, and for junior faculty it is important to surround yourself with strong supports. It was evident that senior leadership sincerely cared for the junior faculty, which means we would have the resources and freedom to be successful.

Since starting here in 2013, I have been very lucky to have so many wonderful mentors and collaborators, such as Drs. Al Baldwin, Chuck Perou, Lisa Carey, Joan Taylor, William Kim, Yue Xiong, Greg Wang and Xian Chen of UNC, and Dr. Kim Rathmell of Vanderbilt.

On a personal level, Chapel Hill has been a nice location for my wife and young children, and has allowed us to have a good balance in life.

In addition to the Jefferson-Pilot Fellowship Award, you recently received a two year, $100,000 grant from the Mary Kay Foundation to study a possible new therapeutic target in basal-like breast cancer. What do these grants mean for your research?

The Jefferson-Pilot award is a prestigious honor. This fellowship not only marks an achievement of all my work at UNC, but it also recognizes all the wonderful people in my lab that have been working towards our understanding of hypoxia signaling in cancer. This fellowship gives us some flexibility to explore novel ideas and hopefully generate some exciting findings that could lead to more grants down the road.

The Mary Kay Foundation grant will help us examine a certain enzyme called Hairless (HR) as a possible new therapeutic target for basal-like breast cancer, which accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers. Both of the awards give us greater ability to research new therapies for a range of cancers.

What do you hope your research leads to?

Our ultimate goal is to find therapeutic approaches that can benefit cancer patients. But first we need to understand how cancer develops and how it escapes traditional targeted therapy. We need to understand how the hypoxia signaling works and how to develop new approaches or use a combination of therapies to achieve better overall effect.

We’re in the basic research side now, but our long-term goal is to move into clinical trials to benefit patients. That depends on what other support we can get from collaborators, chemists, or even companies. Each grant we receive now is a catalyst for further research that could warrant more funding, eventually leading to new hope in the fight against cancer.

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