The University of Louisville Alumni Magazine: for alumni, faculty, staff, students and anyone that is a UofL Cardinal fan.
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1 2 3 4 5 PARTS OF A WELL-BALANCED STUDY 1 Each preclinical study utilizes produce selected from a local supermarket. 2 The fruit is processed in an ordinary kitchen blender, with sodium chloride added as a thinning agent. 3 A ﬂour sifter removes any remaining solid particles. 4 The exosome-like nanoparticles are separated from the solution by centrifuge, then chemically washed to purify them. 5 An electron microscope allows Zhang and his team to see the structure of the exosome-like nanoparticles. 28|LOUISVILLE.EDU A NOVEL APPROACH BASED ON AN ANCIENT IDEA For Zhang, it started with the simple observation that for tens of thousands of years, our ancestors depended on the plants around them for sustenance and, ultimately, survival. With little more than their own instincts to guide them, humans began to distinguish poisonous plants from their edible counterparts. In a way, they were our first scientists, relying on trial and error to find the plants that would help our species flourish. Today, human life expectancy is higher than ever before, but so is the incidence of age-related diseases, the most pernicious of which is cancer. During our lifetimes, nearly half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer, a disease of abnormal, uncontrollable cell growth. One of the most common treatments, chemotherapy, can be effective in killing cancerous cells, but it also destroys normal cells in the process, weakening the immune system and causing side effects such as hair loss, nausea, vomiting and anemia. Typically, cancer-fighting drugs are delivered to the target cells via synthetic nanoparticles. But the body's immune cells view these synthetic materials as foreign material — toxic substances that need to be eliminated from the body — and respond in much the same way as our ancestors' immune systems reacted to poisonous plants. In some cases, the body can't even tolerate anti-cancer drugs long enough for them to have a therapeutic effect. However, Zhang recognized, what the body does tolerate very well are plants, the fruits and vegetables humans have been eating for tens of thousands of years. This led him to theorize that if nanoparticles could be derived from these edible plants and then used as a drug-delivery mechanism, immune cells would recognize them as a nutrient and not a toxin. "Plants, such as grapefruit, everybody eats on a daily basis, so they're not really toxic to the body," explained Jun Yan, co-director of the Tumor Immunobiology Program at the Brown Cancer Center. "That's the beauty of this delivery system." MORE THAN ONE ROAD LESS TAKEN Though popular health magazines often tout the latest "superfood" or boast of the cancer-fighting properties of acai berries, Zhang's turn toward plants was actually inspired by unique circumstances in his own history. As a high schooler in his native China, he earned high marks and was an exceptional math student. "But math is just numbers," he said. "I wanted to save people's lives. That's always been my life's goal." As part of the first generation to be able to attend college after China's Cultural Revolution, Zhang's options