Zhi Sheng has been named an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, where he will focus his research on developing new therapies for glioblastoma multiforme, a lethal and incurable brain cancer.

Despite a range of therapies for glioblastoma, including the symptomatic relief that can come from the surgical removal of a tumor, malignant cells invariably return, leading to a median survival time after diagnosis of just over a year. Several factors complicate treatment: the resistance of the tumor cells to conventional therapies, the vulnerability of the brain to damage from those therapies, and the ability of the cells to evade even the most skilled surgical hand.

Sheng focuses his research on an innovative strategy: taking advantage of two intrinsic cellular processes — autophagy, the process of cellular self-digestion, and apoptosis, programmed cell death — to cause the malignant brain tumor cells to degrade and even kill themselves. Autophagy and apoptosis are often misregulated in cancer stem cells and contribute to therapeutic resistance, so Sheng seeks both to characterize the genes that regulate these processes in glioblastoma and to determine the role these processes play in both the genesis and therapeutic resistance of glioblastoma.

“By elucidating the mechanisms that underpin the role of autophagy and apoptosis in the formation and therapeutic resistance of glioblastoma,” Sheng said, “We plan to pave ways for novel effective therapies to eradicate this terrible disease.” 

“We’re very fortunate to have recruited Dr. Sheng to our team of researchers,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “He received excellent training, he is a creative and talented young medical scientist, and he is addressing an important disease that has no effective treatment.”

Friedlander added that Sheng has another important qualification: an instinct for collaboration across disciplines. “Dr. Sheng is well suited for such a collegial research environment both personally and scientifically,” Friedlander said. “While his work addresses a major pathology of brain function, it also adds to our understanding of the basic processes of glial cells within the brain, including how they regulate their numbers. Dr. Sheng’s research has additional important implications for understanding other brain diseases, as well as normal brain development and aging. He will have the opportunity to collaborate with other institute researchers who study these processes, forming new collaborative programs that span multiple levels of inquiry, including gene regulation in early brain development, transformation of glial cells by signaling molecules, and neurodegenerative disease and regeneration.”

Sheng has also been named an assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Before joining Virginia Tech, Sheng completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Program in Gene Function and Expression at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass. There he studied the molecular pathways regulating apoptosis and autophagy in malignant cells and the mechanisms of chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Sheng earned a bachelor’s degree in forensic science and a master’s degree in biochemistry at Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University in Shanghai, China, before earning a doctorate in molecular and cell biology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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