Qibin Zhang, PhD, has joined the NC Research Campus (NCRC) as an associate professor and co-director of the UNC Greensboro Center for Translational Biomedical Research.
He previously worked at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA where he specialized in biomedical research using mass spectrometry and other advanced instrumentation to study human disease. He is specifically investigating type 1 diabetes (T1D) looking for biomarkers of disease progression.
Zhang explains that T1D is an autoimmune disorder caused by the body attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The problem, Zhang adds, is that the genetic and environmental triggers that cause the body to attack the beta cells are not completely understood. Through the study of proteins and lipids, Zhang’s goal is to contribute new scientific knowledge that will help solve aspects of the biological mystery underlying T1D.
Solving the mystery is essential. The number of people with diabetes is over three million, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Diagnoses are increasing worldwide at a rate of three percent per year in children under the age of 14. Children and adults diagnosed with T1D take insulin for the rest of their lives to prevent hyperglycemia, otherwise known as high blood sugar. Untreated hyperglycemia can affect the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart as well as causes diabetic coma.
The primary focus of Zhang’s research is the study of protein biomarkers.“We have found a correlation between a panel of proteins in the blood and progression of T1D,” Zhang said.
He is isolating proteins from blood samples collected through a collaboration with Marian Rewers, MD, PhD, executive director of the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes at the University of Colorado School Of Medicine. Rewers is the principal investigator of the Diabetes Autoimmunity Study in the Young (DAISY) and The Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY) studies. Both studies have screened thousands of children and their families uncovering genetic profiles and dietary, viral and other environmental triggers that are now linked to T1D.
“We want to identify protein biomarkers which will help the T1D community to diagnose the disease earlier and more accurately and contribute to the understanding of the disease’s underlying biological mechanisms,” Zhang said. “Our ultimate goal is to find out what causes T1D, and help to find a way to prevent it.”
A New Tool to Study Lipids
Zhang is also looking at diabetes from the standpoint of lipids. Lipids, such as cholesterol, are fats that play a biological role in energy storage, molecular signaling and cell structure. A newer vein of research has linked lipid dysregulation, which is the inability of the human body to process or store fats, to type 1 and 2 diabetes, other autoimmune diseases and some cancers.
“Just like protein, lipids are another important class of biomarkers,” he said. “In order to characterize the molecules, I’ve found that the current analytical tools are not enough.”
He is developing a new high-throughput tool called ozone induced disassociation mass spectrometry that will analyze lipid molecules and their structures more accurately and quickly than existing methods. Zhang’s method will enhance the discovery of lipid biomarkers as they relate to diabetes and other diseases.
At the NCRC, Zhang plans to collaborate with the other scientists and take advantage of the campus’ advanced instrumentation. “So much about diabetes is a mystery,” he said. “I hope to study nutrition and disease at a higher level here and contribute to the understanding of diabetes using all of the modern tools we have at this campus. “
Learn more about the UNCG Center for Translational Biomedical Research.