Group name: Key Laboratory of Biomedical Polymers

Group leader: Xian-Zheng Zhang

Location: Wuhan University

Professor Xian-Zheng Zhang
Professor Xian-Zheng Zhang
At work in the Key Laboratory of Biomedical Polymers, Wuhan University.
At work in the Key Laboratory of Biomedical Polymers, Wuhan University.
Researcher using the IVIS Spectrum in vivo imaging system.
Researcher using the IVIS Spectrum in vivo imaging system.

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Encompassing elements of chemistry, materials science, biology and medicine, biomaterials research has made great progress over the past decades. Millions of patients worldwide have benefited from biomaterials-based products.

Recently, broad interdisciplinary collaboration across multiple fields has led to innovations and breakthroughs at the frontiers of biomaterials science, such as functional vectors for drug and gene delivery, targeted therapeutics and imaging systems, and scaffolds for tissue engineering and stem cell differentiation. Advances in understanding disease development and tissue regeneration, combined with new technologies, have brought opportunities for biomaterials science. But critical challenges still exist that will have to be conquered before advanced biomaterials can be adopted in clinical practice for disease treatments.

Xian-Zheng Zhang, vice-dean and professor of chemistry and molecular sciences at Wuhan University, has concentrated his research on biomaterials for therapeutic and diagnostic applications. He has authored more than 370 papers, four book chapters, and holds 20 patents on the subject. He has also received many honors including election as Fellow, Biomaterials Science and Engineering (FBSE) by the International Union of Societies for Biomaterials Science and Engineering (IUSBSE), the National Ten Thousand People Plan of Science and Technology Innovation Talents (2016), Leading Entrepreneurial Hi-Tech Talents (2014), Chang Jiang Scholar (2012), and Distinguished Young Scholar of China (2011).

In addition to his research, Xian-Zheng Zhang serves on the editorial board of numerous journals and is Editor-in-Chief of Materials Today Chemistry.

Xian-Zheng Zhang talked to Materials Today about his research and future plans…

How long has your team been running?

The group has been running for 13 years since 2004.

How many staff makes up your team?

There are more than 20 people in my group, including PhD and master students, postdocs, visiting scholars, and research scientists.

What are the major themes of research in your lab?

Our research mainly focuses on functional polymers, peptides, inorganic materials, and hybrid materials for biomedical applications. We aim to create novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for severe diseases with reduced side effects. We have developed various biomaterials with functional physico-chemical, biological, and biochemical characteristics for therapeutic and diagnostic applications such as cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, and gene therapy. These innovative biomaterials could help overcome clinical challenges, such as drug resistance and cancer metastasis. For example, we have developed a series of prodrugs to overcome various drawbacks of anticancer drugs, such as systemic instability, poor solubility, and lack of tumor specificity.

We also focus on the design of novel functional nanomaterials, such as water-splitting materials. Water-splitting materials have attracted attention because of their promising energy and environmental applications. But the biomedical use of water-splitting materials has not been explored. We have developed carbon nitride-based multifunctional nanocomposites for light-driven water splitting. These nanocomposites appear to possess the ability to produce O2 to overcome tumor hypoxia. The use of water-splitting materials has great potential to improve the intra-tumoral oxygen levels and reverse hypoxia-triggered photodynamic therapy (PDT) resistance and tumor metastasis.

Fighting metastasis is a major challenge in cancer therapy and stimulation of the immune system is of particular importance. We have developed an integrated theranostic nanoplatform for chemo-immuno combination therapy to treat metastatic tumors, i.e. versatile functions including “And” logically controlled drug release, prolonged circulation time, tumor targeting, and anti-metastasis integrated into a nano-sized drug delivery system for the systemic treatment of highly metastatic triple negative breast cancer. In addition to tumor growth inhibition, this system could induce anticancer immune responses including dendritic cell maturation and antitumor cytokine release.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

With more than 20 years of research experience, I feel the importance of biomaterials in human healthcare and the emerging challenges we face in this area. That is the reason to continue my research in this area.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

Our lab is well-equipped with facilities for materials characterization, as well as for in vitro and in vivo studies, including the IVIS Spectrum in vivo imaging system, the Quantum FX microCT imaging system, confocal laser scanning microscopy, spinning disk confocal microscopy, flow cytometry, optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, atomic force microscopy, ultraviolet-visible spectrometry, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, X-ray photoelectron spectrometry, X-ray diffractometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, and high-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

In my opinion, there are several critical factors. The most important thing is to build a highly efficient and innovative group with a strong sense of responsibility and team spirit. As the majority of the team, graduate students with desirable characteristics such as intelligence, creativity, enterprise, dedication, and, above all, interest in science make a critical contribution to the success of a lab. Of course, the faculty advising, encouraging, coaching, and modeling the graduates are very important for their success.

Secondly, cutting-edge thinking and world-leading research themes are at the core of my lab. We strongly encourage team members to share insights and ideas with each other to keep novel ideas flowing.

Last, but not least, advanced equipment and facilities form the foundation of scientific research.

Doing research is a long journey, but our patience, enthusiasm, motivation, knowledge, and advanced technologies will help us enjoy the journey.

How do you plan to develop your lab in the future?

We will continue to drive our research in the field of functional materials for biomedical applications. The research in this field is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and new breakthroughs often result from the fusion of divergent ideas from different fields. Therefore, we are trying to strengthen exchanges and cooperation with other fields like physics, material science, biology, and medicine.  

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Key publications

1.    H. Wei, R. X. Zhuo, X. Z. Zhang. Design and development of polymeric micelles with cleavable links for intracellular drug delivery. Prog. Polym. Sci. 38 (2013) 503.

2.    D. W. Zheng, Q. Lei, J. Y. Zhu, J. X. Fan, C. X. Li, C. Li, Z. S. Xu, S. X. Cheng, X. Z. Zhang. Switching apoptosis to ferroptosis: metal-organic network for high-efficiency anticancer therapy. Nano Lett. 17 (2017) 284.

3.    W. H. Chen, G. F. Luo, Q. Lei, S. Hong, W. X. Qiu, L. H. Liu, S. X. Cheng, X. Z. Zhang. Improved photothermal therapy of tumor by interfering the unique anaerobic glycolysis metabolism. ACS Nano 11 (2017) 1419.

4.    D. W. Zheng, J. L. Chen, J. Y. Zhu, L. Rong, B. Li, Q. Lei, J. X. Fan, M. Z. Zou, C. Li, S. X. Cheng, Z. S. Xu, X. Z. Zhang. Highly integrated nano-platform for breaking the barrier between chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Nano Lett. 16 (2016) 4341.

5.    D. W. Zheng, B. Li, C. X. Li, J. X. Fan, Q. Lei, C. Li, Z. S. Xu, X. Z. Zhang. Carbon dots decorated carbon nitride nanoparticles for enhanced photodynamic therapy against hypoxic tumor via water splitting strategy. ACS Nano 10 (2016) 8715.

6.    L. H. Liu, W. X, Qiu, B. Li, C. Zhang, L. F. Sun, S. S. Wan, L. Rong, X. Z. Zhang. A red light activatable multifunctional prodrug for image-guided photodynamic therapy and cascaded chemotherapy. Adv. Funct. Mater. 26 (2016) 6257.

7.    K. Han, S. B. Wang, Q. Lei, J. Y. Zhu, X. Z. Zhang. Ratiometric biosensor for aggregation-induced emission-guided precise photodynamic therapy. ACS Nano. 9 (2015) 10268.

8.    S. Y. Li, L. H. Liu, L. Rong, W. X. Qiu, H. Z. Jia, B. Li, F. Li, X. Z. Zhang. A dual-FRET-based versatile prodrug for real-time drug release monitoring and in situ therapeutic efficacy evaluation. Adv. Funct. Mater. 25 (2015) 7317.

9.    J. Zhang, Z. F. Yuan, Y. Wang, W. H. Chen, G. F. Luo, S. X. Cheng, R. X. Zhuo, X. Z. Zhang. Multifunctional envelope-type mesoporous silica nanoparticles for tumor-triggered targeting drug delivery. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 135 (2013) 5068. 

10. W. Xiao, W. H. Chen, C. Li, J. Zhang, R. X. Zhuo, X. Z. Zhang. Design of a cellular-uptake-shielding template for photo-controlled appointed drug release. Adv. Mater. 23 (2011) 3526.