Harvard science prodigy joins emphysema project

Jun 25 2013

Dominick Zheng& Professor Phil Hansbro

Dominick Zheng, left, is working with Professor Phil Hansbro at the HMRI Building on a COPD study.

International ties between the University of Newcastle and Harvard Medical School have been strengthened with the arrival of a young respiratory researcher to work on a ground-breaking emphysema study underway at the HMRI Building.

Dominick Zheng, a 19-year-old science prodigy who began researching at 15, is on secondment to work with Professor Phil Hansbro and Laureate Professor Paul Foster’s research teams. His trip is being funded by the Harvard Club of Australia Foundation.

“We’re well known for our studies of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), commonly known as emphysema, and the lab where Dominick comes from specialises in mast cell biology,” Professor Hansbro said.

“For the past five years we’ve been developing a laboratory model that allows us to study the pathological features of the disease in a realistic timeframe. We’ve identified an important contribution by mast cells to COPD pathogenesis, which hasn’t been done before, and Dominick is here to work out exactly why it’s important.”

Professor Hansbro suspects that mast cells, which are part of the immune system, are triggering a protein that is elevated and more active in COPD, leading to tissue damage and inflammation.

“It’s just a hypothesis at the moment but if Dominick can demonstrate that this process is occurring then potentially we can develop new inhibitors,” he said.

Mr Zheng said his two-month stay would be intensive but highly rewarding.

“The laboratory modelling they have already developed is a huge jump-off point as it enables me to get straight to work,” Mr Zheng said.

“We’re figuring out how to add another layer of protection to the body’s own defence mechanism as COPD levels are increasing to the extent it’s now a leading cause of death worldwide.”

In Western countries the disease is primarily caused by smoking but it is also linked to wood smoke and air pollution. Chronic airway inflammation causes breathlessness and respiratory infections.

Mr Zheng’s arrival follows a visit by Harvard scientist Dr Rick Stevens in 2010 and an outbound fellowship by Laureate Professor Paul Foster, head of HMRI’s VIVA program, in 2012.

* Professor Hansbro leads the University of Newcastle’s Microbiology, Asthma and Airways Research Group in the Centre for Asthma and Respiratory Disease. It conducts research in collaboration with the HMRI Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines and Asthma Research Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.