On June 12, the U.S. Department of State hosted an event on “Connecting Economies through Science” in Washington DC, inviting the talented young scientists in the field of new material technologies to share their research and how they work across borders with other young scientists and leverage science as a form of public diplomacy.
The event was a part of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education, also known as the ASPIRE prize. ASPIRE recognizes young scientists who have demonstrated a commitment to excellence in scientific research and collaboration with scientists from other APEC economies. Each year there is a theme and each APEC member economy identifies a nominee for the $25,000 prize, which is co-sponsored by Wiley and Elsevier.
One of the scientists at the event was leading nanomedicine scientists from U.C. San Diego, Dr. Liangfang Zhang. Dr. Zhang was also the U.S. nominee to the ASPIRE prize, where he competed with other young scientists for the final prize. Alongside Dr. Zhang at the Washington event were also Dr. Zhen Gu of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and N.C. State University as well as Dr. Michael Arnold from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both new material scientists, the former working in the biomedical field, and the latter focusing on carbon nanotube transistors for cutting edge electronics.
(From Left to Right: L to R): Adam Huftalen (Elsevier, ASPIRE Co-Sponsor), Wendell Albright (State Department, Director of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs), Dr. Michael Arnold (US ASPIRE Runner up), Dr. Liangfang Zhang (US ASPIRE Winner), Dr. Zhen Gu (US ASPIRE runner up), Dr. Jonathan Margolis (State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Science, Space and Health); Andrew Tein (Wiley, ASPIRE Co-Sponsor)
Before Dr. Zhang spoke at the event, Wiley Exchanges caught up with Dr. Zhang to learn more about his research. Here is an abridged version of our conversation.
A. It was a natural progression for me to enter the field of nanomaterials and nanomedicine because both my graduate and postdoctoral trainings are in this area. However, what really triggered me to devote my career to translational medical research were the many queries I received from patients and their family members about our research findings. While they often don’t have professional training in my field, they often read our publications closely to look for potential applications for the diseases that they are facing. These emails and phone calls are a powerful driving force to me and my team. We really want to create some useful technologies and translate them into practice, and thus benefit the patients. Nanomaterials and nanomedicine is a research area with tremendous potential to overcome the various therapeutic barriers that are otherwise difficult to overcome.
Q. Can you describe your research in lay terms, and how it might help tackle some medical challenges we’re facing?
A. When applying nanomaterials to the human body for medical applications, regardless of which type of nanomaterials we are going to use, a common challenge is that our body’s immune system is going to attack these foreign materials and try to remove them. The key innovation we made is to camouflage the nanomaterials so they appear to belong to the body by wrapping these foreign materials with a thin layer of natural cell membranes. For instance, by cloaking nanoparticles with natural red blood cell (RBC) membranes, they are disguised as mini RBCs and thus they can sneak away from the immune attack. By doing this, we can allow the nanoparticles to circulate in the blood for a long time. These camouflaged nanoparticles can then carry a high dosage of drugs and more effectively deliver them to diseased sites.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge as a researcher? And what accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. As a biomedical researcher, I found the biggest challenge is to search for practical solutions for urgent medical problems. There are many medical problems that we know little about or have a very limited tool set to deal with. Some of them are longstanding problems and life-threatening. It’s not an easy task to find solutions that are effective and practical, but this is my mission as a researcher. The accomplishments that I am most proud of are twofold. First, I am very proud of creating a useful nanotechnology and carrying it all the way from research discovery to clinical translation. Second, I am really delighted to train many outstanding young scientists and researchers who will become the next generation’s driving forces of the field, both in academia and in industry.
Q. What does winning the US ASPIRE competition mean to you?
A. I am delighted to receive this prestigious recognition. It means a lot to me and my research team because our technology has been recognized and is making a broad impact. This recognition certainly further motivates us to work hard on the development and translation of our technology, aiming to make big scientific and socioeconomic impacts.