Bringing passion to medical science

Tucked away in the corner of UC Irvine is a 100,000-square-foot structure against a grassy hill.

For those working inside the campus’ relatively new addition, the mission is simple: Discover new technologies that help people who suffer from debilitating diseases.

Dr. Weian Zhao is one of the latest academic superstars the university has added to its roster. He was recently recognized in MIT’s Technology Review list of 35 innovators younger than 35 who are making profound and lasting societal contributions.

While working as a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard University, Zhao, 32, discovered how to make cells visible inside a living body.

By attaching dye to a strand of DNA and connecting that strand to a cell, scientists can watch the cell inside the body and see how it reacts to other cells, medicine and cancer.

This technology could streamline the lengthy drug test process and eventually make some drugs more effective.

Zhao, who brought his technology with him from Cambridge, is working with 11 other researchers in studying cancer to create solutions that he hopes will be available within the next five years.

“Really, the philosophy of the lab is to develop new technologies that impact people’s lives,” he said.


Stem cell center

Although he’s been at UCI for nearly a year, Zhao’s office in the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center has almost no personal adornments or ephemera. The sparse work space doesn’t reflect Zhao’s effusive personality or the energy he has as he carefully explains his team’s work with an ear-to-ear smile; there is just little time for distractions.

“When I met Dr. Zhao, he was very passionate about what he does,” said fellow researcher Elizabeth Chang. He “really wanted to make an impact on the world in an efficient way.”

Zhao hopes he and his team will create a test for cancer that is as simple to use as a pregnancy test. Like the strip turning blue for a baby, the device would change color to indicate a patient’s cancer status.

A few drops of blood would detect cancer without invasive tests and before it has spread to unmanageable levels.

“Cancer diagnostics is the focus of our research,” he said. “It was really driven by our long-term goal that addresses medical problems in the field.”

Cancer may be the focus, but the group’s research is wide-ranging.

Chang is working on finding new and more potent drugs for leukemia that require fewer resources, and less time and money.

“We want it to be able to be made simply, so not as complex as other drugs … but [with the] same if not better effect,” Chang said.

Researcher Mark Eckert is studying cancer’s growth and finding ways to contain its spreading.

Specifically, he is looking at breast cancer and localized therapies that lack chemotherapy’s difficult side effects.

“There’s no current treatment that targets cancer once it metastasizes,” Eckert said.

His objective is one heard time and again in the lab: “Bring this into the clinic as fast as possible.”


Many specialties

The lab’s work doesn’t just take place under the microscope.

Researchers’ areas of study include chemistry, biology, physics and biomedical engineering. They hail from places like London, China, Canada and San Diego.

“Just because the nature of our research is so interdisciplinary … it is essential and critical for us to have people coming from different backgrounds,” Zhao said. “A lot of big ideas come from different backgrounds. When people from different backgrounds talk, you really get inspired.”

They sit shoulder to shoulder in the lab, studying why cancer cells don’t react to the loss of oxygen the way normal cells do, or how to use stem cells to deliver medicine to rehabilitate an area of the body.

“When we identify a project we always ask whether this will address a big medical problem and if we can benefit a patient really soon,” Zhao said.

Twitter: @lawilliams30