Zhu designs drug delivery systems to test nanovaccines for brain and skin cancer

Guizhong Zhu, Ph.D., 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.
By Blake Belden

Having a research laboratory on a medical campus, Guizhi Zhu, Ph.D., will often cross paths with cancer patients, and it’s during those instances that he is most driven to continue his work.

“I sometimes feel helpless because I can’t do much for them in that moment other than saying some kind words,” he 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.”

Guizhi “Julian” Zhu uses innovative drug delivery platforms to test the efficacy of novel immunotherapeutics for a variety of disease types including skin, liver, brain, colorectal and breast cancers.

He joined VCU Massey Cancer Center as an associate member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program in 2018, and he is an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics and Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences at the VCU School of Pharmacy.

Leveraging an extensive background in engineering, chemistry and pharmacology, Zhu designs targeted drug delivery systems and develops cancer nanomedicines such as nucleic acid nanovaccines for enhanced therapeutic benefit. Nanovaccines are vaccines that dispense microscopic particles into the immune system to stimulate a response against cancer cells, and 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 Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of Massey, Zhu holds an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant (ACS-IRG) to study the combination of an immunotherapy and an immuno-activating chemotherapy to treat melanoma.

He is also one of the principal investigators , together with Kristoffer Valerie, Ph.D., and Paula Bos, Ph.D., members of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey, on a Massey 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.”

He is a KL2 Mentored Clinical Research Scholar under the mentorship of Douglas Sweet, Ph.D., and Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., an Endowment Fund awardee from the VCU Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research and a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund recipient.

Zhu leads a research team of six postdocs and graduate students as well as multiple undergraduate students and visiting scholars.

He grew up in China where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Nankai University. Zhu moved to the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. in medical science – physiology and pharmacology – and also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer nanomedicine at the University of Florida. He finished a second postdoctoral fellowship in cancer immunotherapy and bioimaging from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in Maryland. During this time, Zhu collaborated in famous and well-established laboratories to engineer and image nanomedicines. It was following this fellowship when he centered his work around cancer immunotherapies.

“Because the nature of my work is heavily focused on cancer immunotherapy, the scientific combination of pharmaceutics and cancer offers an ideal environment for me at Massey,” Zhu said.

Zhu has published more than 70 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of the American Chemical Society, ACS NanoAngewandte Chemie, among others. His publications have been cited by peers more than 4,500 times in the past five years, according to Google Scholar. Zhu 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 he was awarded the Alan M. Gewirtz Memorial Fellowship by the Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Society (2013), among other awards.

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

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