VCU Clinical Research KL2 Scholar designs drug delivery systems to test nanovaccines for brain and skin cancer

Dr. Zhu wears a button-up shirt and looks at the camera in front of a computer.
Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.

While walking between meetings and the lab he maintains on the Virginia Commonwealth University MCV Campus, Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholar Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D., often crosses paths with cancer patients in the VCU Medical Center corridors. The encounters serve as daily inspiration for the VCU School of Pharmacy assistant professor.

“I sometimes feel helpless because I can’t do much for them at that moment other than saying some kind words,” Zhu said. “Those are the moments that help me focus on my research to potentially have an impact that can change or improve therapeutic outcomes for cancer patients.”

Zhu uses innovative drug delivery platforms to test the efficacy of novel immunotherapies for a variety of disease types, including skin, liver, brain, colorectal, and breast cancers. In addition to being appointed as a Clinical Research KL2 Scholar in 2018, he received a Wright Center Endowment Fund earlier this year and in August was among 18 VCU faculty members to receive a Presidential Research Quest Fund from the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.

Leveraging an extensive background in engineering, chemistry, and pharmacology, Zhu leads a research team of six postdocs and graduate students, as well as multiple undergraduate students and visiting scholars. His team designs targeted drug delivery systems and develop cancer nanomedicines such as nucleic acid nanovaccines for enhanced therapeutic benefit. Nanovaccines dispense microscopic particles into the immune system to stimulate a response against cancer cells. They hold promise for treating disease more effectively than existing vaccines. Zhu tests a variety of nucleic acids, including immunomodulatory DNA/RNA, gene-expression modulation DNA/RNA, drug-encoding mRNA or gene-editing nucleic acids.

Zhu currently holds several grants to support studies on nanovaccines for glioma, a tumor of the brain and spinal cord, and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Under the mentorship of VCU School of Medicine professor Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., Zhu holds an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant to study the combination of immunotherapy and immuno-activating chemotherapy to treat melanoma. He is also a principal investigator on a VCU Massey Cancer Center pilot project that will explore the combination of a nanovaccine, immune re-energizing drugs and radiation therapy to treat glioma in mouse models.

“This project is really exciting because there isn’t a durably effective treatment option for glioma,” Zhu said. “We hope that by using radiation we can jump-start the tumor microenvironment to make immunotherapy more effective.”

Zhu grew up in China, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Nankai University. He later moved to the U.S., where he earned a doctorate in medical science and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer nanomedicine at the University of Florida. He finished a second postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunotherapy and bioimaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in Maryland. During this time, Zhu collaborated in well-established laboratories to engineer and image nanomedicines. It was after this fellowship that he focused his research on cancer immunotherapies.

“The scientific combination of pharmaceutics and cancer research offers an ideal environment for me to continue my career at Massey,” he said.

Zhu has published more than 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Communications and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His publications have been cited by peers more than 4,500 times in the past five years. He is a member of the American Chemical Society, the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society and the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. He received a Distinguished Scientist Award from the National Institutes of Health in 2017 and was awarded the Alan M. Gewirtz Memorial Fellowship by the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society in 2013.

He lives with his daughter and mother in Richmond, and the family awaits the arrival of his wife, who is close to finishing her doctoral degree in food science and nutrition in Maryland.

Re-purposed from an article by Blake Belden, VCU Massey Cancer Center

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