Even as a boy, Shine Xu Zhang knew that he wanted to study science and medicine. Both of his parents were doctors – and Zhang wanted to create the technology they and, ultimately, patients most need. “I understood how important medical technology was,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a medical doctor – I wanted to help medical doctors to do their job.”
To do that, Dr. Zhang took his master’s in biophysics, a doctorate in chemistry and focused his post-doctoral research on nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. He combined his expertise and his research in those three fields of study, which helped him win a fellowship from the Canadian Institute for Health Research to investigate how to use nanoparticles to deliver chemotherapy and radiation to cancer patients.
Dr. Zhang has continued this groundbreaking cancer research at Cape Breton University’s Verschuren Centre – where he’s also collaborating with other scientists to use nanotechnology to remove chemical byproducts from wastewater. That’s part of what drew Dr. Zhang to the Verschuren Centre – the chance to draw upon the expertise of scientists with various backgrounds in order to create a holistic approach to solving the problems facing his industrial partners. Dr. Zhang and Dr. Ken Oakes are working together to remove pharmaceutical byproducts from wastewater, looking specifically at the estrogen released from the birth control pills that has caused male fish to develop eggs and threatens their reproductive ability. But for human-made problems, Dr. Zhang believes there are human-made solutions.
“We believe that every nanoparticle material has its own strengths,” he said. “We can combine several strengths from different materials and… make something very useful.”
For his cancer research, that means fabricating liposomes containing gold nanoparticles and the chemotherapeutics.
“We use the DNA Aptamers… to direct the nanostructures to the cancer tissues so that we can increase the local concentration of the drug along the cancer but decrease the total dosage of the anticancer drug,” says Dr. Zhang. That means the drugs are targeting the specific cells of the disease rather than diluting the treatment by targeting all of the body’s rapidly dividing cells. It’s an intense, targeted therapy – but one that has fewer side effects because the medication does not target healthy tissue.
“In the future we won’t need to treat cancer in such a time-consuming, costly way; the treatment time can shrink from weeks of chemotherapy.” Dr. Zhang said, “Because the more concentrated drug specifically targets the cancer cells.”
“With this kind of technology, we can speed up the treatment and improve its efficiency and effectiveness,” he explains. That leads to better outcomes for medical providers because it’s more cost-effective but also for those people who might be frail or elderly and are unsure they can withstand the side effects associated with cancer treatment.
Dr. Zhang is also currently using nanotechnology to speed up the labelling of antibodies, a process that can be accomplished in minutes, compared to hours or days when using the traditional horseradish peroxidase enzyme.
“When compared to that enzyme, the nanoparticles are easy to use in industry settings,” Dr. Zhang says. “There’s no special storage requirement, and the results they produce are about 100 times more sensitive than those that can be produced using the enzymes.”
At the Verschuren Centre, Dr. Zhang can focus solely on his research and industrial partnerships rather than splitting his time between experimentation and teaching.
“I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to just focus on research in an independent program.”