Fall 2007 Issue

Who is Dr. Hu?

Xiao-Tang Hu always knew he wanted to be a scientist. Now his research into cellular protein pathways just may be the key to understanding the origin of cancer.

By Jim Harper

As a young boy in China, Xiao-Tang Hu would stare in wonder at the stars and dream of exploring them. Today, he peers into the microscopic universe of the cell in a quest to understand cancer, a quest he shares with his students as an assistant professor of biology at Barry University.

Hu’s path has taken him far away from his family, his homeland, but not those boyhood dreams. He maintains a boyish enthusiasm for teaching and for research – two reasons why he came to Barry in 2003.

“I like both,” Hu said. “My students are very happy with my teaching, and I like the independence of my own lab.”

In April, his research on leukemia was highlighted at the centennial meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Los Angeles, the premier event for presenting research in cancer prevention and cures. Moreover, a peer-reviewed article of his research has recently been published in the molecular biology journal Cytokine.

“He’s a real high quality research scientist, published in the highest journals. He’s very personable and professional,” said colleague Dr. Graham Shaw, an associate professor in biochemistry at Barry.

Hu’s research focuses on the miniscule trap doors inside cells that guide proteins to their proper place. Cancer can develop when cellular protein pathways are damaged; therefore, studying the factors that influence protein pathways may reveal the true origin of a cancer, just as investigating a criminal’s background may reveal the motivation for a particular crime.

Hu has been playing detective with cancerous white blood cells for decades. He looks closely at how a particular protein, called TGF-beta, can induce two different signal pathways within cells, which are linked to growth inhibition or cancerous transformation. TGF-beta acts like an uncooperative drawbridge to a shipment of phosphorus, a necessary part of DNA and overall cell health. Without the phosphorus, leukemia cells continue proliferating and destroying other cells in their way. It turns out that there is another rusty drawbridge known as PI3 hiding behind the TGF-beta, and Hu was the first to report this connection.

This recent discovery generated quite a buzz among the scientists at the AACR meeting, and Hu was on his feet for four hours answering questions during a poster session. Four of the poster’s five co-authors, Daniel Montengo, Tina Franklin, Sabrina Gillig, and Beatriz Perez, have been assistants in Hu’s research lab at Barry, while Kenneth Zuckerman worked with Hu at the University of South Florida.

“He’s great and super patient. He knows so much about cancer and cell biology that it’s a pleasure to work with him. He’s able to answer any question,” said Gillig.

The leukemia cells Gillig cultures in Hu’s lab on the third floor of the School of Natural and Health Sciences come either from biopsies of cancer patients or from Hu’s previous work replicating leukemia cells in the laboratory, which created a new, independent source of live cells for researchers. Gillig is quick to point out that Hu’s work commercializing a cell line has “amazing” research benefits.

Hu attributes much of his success as a research scientist to his father’s early advice and encouragement. “My father had great impact on my studies, because he always asked us to study, study and study,” he said. “He was very good in classic and modern Chinese literature. However, he wanted [me] to be a scientist, because he thought ‘technology’ was [a good way to earn a living].”

The youngest of five children, Hu’s given name is “Xiao,” which designates him as the youngest member of the Hu clan. He grew up traditionally in the city of Wuhu, near the fabled Yellow Mountains and along the Yangtze River in the same eastern region of China as Shanghai. After graduating from high school, he studied medicine at Wannan Medical College in Wuhu and later at Hunan Medical University in the city of Changsha.

After earning an M.D. in 1982, Hu decided not to practice medicine. Instead, he stayed at Hunan Medical University to study experimental hematology, or blood cell research. A Ph.D. in 1987 led to two post-doctoral fellowships on the other side of the world.

Leaving China for the first time, Hu arrived in London with little English, even less money, and the hope of receiving a Royal Society Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. After a year in the U.K., he moved to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for a three-year fellowship in hematology, which led to an assistant professorship at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 2003, he migrated to Miami, where he teaches cellular biology courses, advises over 40 undergraduate students and continues his research.

“He’s able to get his message across to the students. He’s doing a good job, and he’s a good guy.” Shaw said.

His wife, Shaolan Zhu, and daughter, Doreen, are in Florida, but the rest of Hu’s family remains in China. During last year’s visit to his hometown of Wuhu, he zoomed around on his sister’s moped while wearing a “Gators” hat. Even on the other side of the planet, he showed some Florida spirit.