Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg
The key to preventing infections to allergies to common types of cancers may lie in the mysterious mucosal immune system – the portion of the immune system that protects areas of the body exposed to the external environment, such as the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
Because it is such an important line of defense against inflammation and illness, Dr. Xiaoping Zhu from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Maryland has made it the focus of his career to study the mucosal system and develop vaccines and immune therapeutic strategies that target it in order to benefit both human and animal health.
“Ninety percent of infection and common inflammation happens in the mucosal surface,” says Zhu. “We don’t know much about why because it’s very complicated.”
Most vaccines used today are administered through injections into the muscles or underneath the skin. However, this method of immunization has proved ineffective or short-lived for ailments like HIV, influenza or Herpes that enter the body through the mucous membranes. Zhu’s research uses animal models to try to create vaccines for human diseases that could be administered via oral or nasal routes, thus protecting the body at the infection site and potentially creating a stronger and safer immune response.
Zhu’s diverse educational and professional experiences provide the perfect framework for this innovative and expanding area of science. He received his doctorate of veterinary medicine from Ningxia University in Yinchuan, China and a master’s degree in veterinary pathology from China Agricultural University in Beijing, China. He then went on to complete his Ph.D. in virology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and postdoctoral work in immunology at Harvard University Medical School.
“I think my background fits perfectly to develop this unique area,” says Zhu. “You need to be able to understand the host, the pathogen and the mucosal immune system.”
Zhu came to the University of Maryland in 2003 and since then has received millions of dollars in grants with his collaborators to study mucosal approaches to vaccines and immune therapy against diseases including HIV, herpes, whooping cough, influenza, and asthma. For example, Zhu and a pre-doctoral student are currently working on creating a universal flu vaccine that wouldn’t need to be administered seasonally. Additionally, he and a postdoctoral scientist are developing novel strategies to prevent and treat lung allergies. Zhu says his ultimate goal is to use the strategies he’s developed to create vaccines for certain mucosal cancers such as colon and lung cancer.
“It’s all about translating basic research into a practical purpose. That’s what drives me,” he says.
Zhu says the University of Maryland is in a prime position to conduct this type of exploratory research, with federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture located nearby.
Zhu is also passionate about training students and postdoctoral fellows to take up the torch in his field, which he calls “explosive” and “extremely competitive.”
“I always tell students our purpose is not to publish a paper. Our purpose is to develop useful knowledge and technology to benefit human society,” says Zhu. “I encourage them to be pioneers. High-risk research can lead to high-impact results.”