Weian Zhao Develops Microscopic Solutions to Medicine’s Biggest Problems

Faculty Spotlight Rising Tide Rising Tide - Jan '21
January 19, 2021 By Ethan Perez

The UCI professor and his lab focus on solving problems with speed and accuracy.

Speed and accuracy play a large role in how the world progresses on a technological level, and healthcare and medicine are no different. In healthcare, an increase in speed and accuracy can mean the difference between life and death.

UC Irvine Professor Weian Zhao, Ph.D., knows this and works to develop technologies for rapid diagnosis, stem cell therapy and drug discovery through his research and startups he co-founded.

Zhao’s first experience with medicine and helping others came during his childhood. His father was given minimal medical training as part of China’s barefoot doctor program to provide rural villages with basic healthcare, including preventive care and treatment for common illnesses.

Weian Zhao and Phil Felgner converse in a lab setting

Weian Zhao, Ph.D., and Phil Felgner,
Ph.D., collaborate to create a rapid high-throughput COVID-19 serological test.

“That childhood experience played a major role in formulating my future career. I was able to see how medicine helps people in need,” said Zhao.

And while it is clear that Zhao enjoys his career in chemistry, he admits it wasn’t much of a choice early on, as he was placed in the chemistry program after completing China’s National College Entrance Examination.

It was not until Zhao started his graduate studies at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, that he first came to appreciate the potential of a research career. Zhao attributes this realization to his first-year roommate who would frequently share journal articles and talk to him about the latest research.

“I got really attracted to research and realized ‘this is pretty cool seeing the potential of how research – chemistry specifically – can impact society and people’s lives,’” said Zhao. “From that point on I took off on that career path.”

Zhao went on to conduct his postdoctoral work at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the guidance of mentors Jeff Karp, professor of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, and Rob Langer, an institute professor at MIT. Both Karp and Langer’s entrepreneurial and translational achievements helped Zhao establish his own research philosophy of trying to address the immediate needs of society – in clinics specifically – and developing new technologies to address those needs.

“For me, doing research and startup companies are synergistic; they are very complementary of each other. It’s not a distraction as some people think,” said Zhao.

In 2014, inspired by his mentors, Zhao co-founded his first startup, Velox Biosystems, based on his rapid diagnostic technology. The startup – a graduate of UCI Beall Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder program – is largely focused on the detection of bacteria in the blood, but recently collaborated with Nanommune Inc., a startup founded by Phil Felgner, Ph.D., professor of Physiology and Biophysics at UCI’s School of Medicine and director of UCI’s Vaccine Research and Development Center. Together, the two UCI startups produced a rapid high-throughput COVID-19 serological test and are working on a viral antigen test that can determine the specific respiratory virus a person may have been exposed to, including SARS-CoV-2.

“The point is to diagnose a disease very rapidly, when time really matters,” said Zhao. “If you can diagnose diseases earlier, you tend to be more effective in terms of treatment.”

Weian Zhao's quote that reads: UCI Beall Applied Innovation provides one of the best entrepreneurial and startup hubs in the country. The resources are there. You just need to make the effort!

His second startup, Amberstone Biosciences, which was co-founded shortly after his first, aims to develop novel immunotherapeutics for cancer and other immune disorders. Their core technology allows them to screen drug candidates in higher numbers and in far less time than current methods. This highly efficient workflow has the potential to drastically reduce the time and money it takes to get a drug from lab to patient.

The latest venture, Arvetas Biosciences, uses a technology made in collaboration with Enrico Gratton, Ph.D., UCI distinguished professor of Biomedical Engineering and principal investigator of the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics. This technology can rapidly analyze single-molecule biomarkers from patient tissues. By quickly and accurately determining specific biomarkers, like those from a tumor sample, clinicians can better understand which drug to prescribe an individual patient, enabling a higher standard of precision medicine.

Zhao’s entrepreneurial mindset is second nature to him but he believes it can be cultured by those who are dedicated enough.

“Faculty new to starting a company have to develop a habit of thinking about commercialization and realize there is a lot of work,” said Zhao. “No one is going to come with money and people and commercialize your technology for you; it’s a real commitment.”

For UCI faculty who want to learn more about entrepreneurship and translating their research, Zhao directs them to the programs and resources at UCI Beall Applied Innovation.

Man and woman in a lab setting

Ph.D. students Jayapriya Jayaraman and Michael Mellody use droplet microfluidic technology to discover immunotherapeutics.

“UCI Beall Applied Innovation provides one of the best entrepreneurial and startup hubs in the country. The resources are there,” said Zhao. “You just need to make the effort!”

Zhao’s dedication to solving problems has garnered a lot of attention and landed him many accolades. Notable achievements include winning the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award, which recognizes early career investigators behind innovative projects in the biomedical, behavioral or social sciences. He was also named one of MIT’s Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, which recognizes outstanding innovators who are younger than 35.

Man analyzes tissue sample in lab setting

Ph.D. student Josh Gu uses the lab’s technology to run multiplex spatial analyses of samples.

In 2019, Zhao joined Applied Innovation’s inaugural Faculty Innovation Fellowship program and one year later, he received the Innovator of the Year award during Applied Innovation’s third annual UCI Innovator Awards celebration, which recognizes UCI faculty and researchers who actively promote commercialization of university innovations and intellectual property.

Zhao also holds appointments at the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology, the Institute for Immunology, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Department of Biological Chemistry, and Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Whether working with physicians to find opportunities to improve clinics or being approached with a problem, Zhao and team are up for the challenge. He credits the lab team’s agile mindset and diversity – both in terms of degree levels as well as scientific fields represented – for their ability to tackle the immediate needs of society, be it rapid diagnosis of sepsis or COVID-19 antibodies.

“I’m really excited for the next five years at the lab … but who knows, maybe there will be another pandemic or something else,” said Zhao. “We’re going to take them one at time, and that’s the nature of my research; very adaptive and designed specifically to address the immediate need.”

Learn more about the Zhao lab.

Photos: Julie Kennedy, UCI Beall Applied Innovation

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