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October 9, 2015

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Molecular biologist wants UNLV to evolve into a biomedical research powerhouse


Steve Marcus

New UNLV professor Hui Zhang poses in a lab at UNLV Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Hui, a molecular biologist, is still unpacking at UNLV after five years at the Nevada Cancer Institute.

New Faces at UNLV

New UNLV professor Hui Zhang poses in a lab at UNLV Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. Hui, a molecular biologist, is still unpacking at UNLV after five years at the Nevada Cancer Institute. Launch slideshow »

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Hui Zhang loves Las Vegas.

The weather, the entertainment, the diversity — he sees potential in the city, and he loves that, too.

“People would be happy here,” he said in his office at UNLV.

Hui is a new face at UNLV. The biochemistry researcher and professor joined the staff in August after reorganization of the Nevada Cancer Institute, where he spent the past five years.

Hui’s pedigree includes research done during his postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School and as a Yale Medical School researcher and instructor.

As he readjusts to an educational environment, he’s already praising UNLV’s potential.

“They want to do something,” he said of his new colleagues. “They want to discover something.”

The goal, he said, is for UNLV to become a biomedical research institute. That’s where his work fits in.

Hui studies how cells divide, which has implications in cancer research. The cause is close to his heart. His father, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.

Hui’s work is done at the molecular level and examines protein interactions.

“Work is done by proteins, so we need to understand what each protein does,” he said.

His research encompasses everything from cancer stem cells to gene modification.

Cancer stem cells give rise to tumors and can remain in the body even after a tumor mass has been eradicated. Even if a tumor is removed, a cancerous mass could arise in the same spot because those stem cells are still present, Hui said.

Understanding these cells, how they divide and the proteins involved can offer a better idea of how to target cancer with drugs, Hui said.

His work also looks at how the packaging of DNA — a human’s genetic code — can affect which genes are turned on or off. DNA is a long, narrow string-like object, which makes it hard to fit inside of a cell. Humans and many other organisms solve this problem by
 wrapping DNA strands around proteins to make the DNA more compact. These proteins act like spools while DNA acts like thread, winding around and around. Different biological chemicals can modify those proteins. The changes to the protein, in turn, may affect its interaction with the DNA wrapped around it, which could affect which genes on the DNA are expressed.

Hui said he’d like to pursue research on such modifications, which he says are important to a cell’s ability to faithfully copy its DNA before it divides to form new cells.

As UNLV attempts to bolster its research reputation, résumés and research like Hui’s are attractive to administrators.

“I’m a firm believer that an active researcher can give a better experience to chemistry students,” said Dennis Lindle, chairman of UNLV’s chemistry department.

Lindle said the department was seeking an impact hire — a researcher with a strong background, a grant and a good reputation — when candidates were interviewed in the spring. Hui fit the bill.

Daniel DiMaio, scientific director of Yale Cancer Center and a former colleague, describes Hui as dedicated and ambitious.

“He was here all the time, and he was a great person to discuss things with,” DiMaio said.

Hui said he wanted to focus on doing his part to help UNLV become a prolific research institution. He said Nevada deserved biomedical research as a new industry, but he doesn’t want to turn UNLV into Yale, Harvard or any other institution.

UNLV has a spirit of cooperation and a more relaxed environment than other institutions, Hui said.

Those factors must be accompanied by a larger investment in infrastructure and professors with the capability to bring in large grants if UNLV hopes to achieve its goals, he said.

“We need to have professors who are more capable of creative thinking and research,” he said.

Hui said the egos at larger institutions make for too much competition, but he thinks those institutions’ tendency to have evaluators constantly seeking talented researchers and worthwhile projects is needed at UNLV.

“We do need to get the leadership to evaluate what our research capability is,” he said.

Creating a biomedical research hub in Las Vegas, to Hui, means melding the best of the university and the city.

“How about the concept of getting entertainment and good health care together?” he asked.

He said he thought it would be possible to love Las Vegas for its research, just as it is for its world-class entertainment offerings.

“You should have big visions,” Hui said.

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