Qiuge Zhang: Engineering Bacteria to Treat Diseases

Qiuge Zhang in a lab, holding glass tubes in a gloved hand.

When it comes to improving the lives of people diagnosed with diseases like diabetes, University of Minnesota graduate student researcher Qiuge Zhang is developing innovative ways to treat and manage their conditions. Combining her undergraduate education in organic chemistry with the knowledge she has gained as a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, College of Science and Engineering, Zhang is focused on engineering bacteria to function as "living therapeutics" that produce and deliver proteins to treat numerous diseases.

Zhang is an exceptionally driven and ambitious researcher who is involved in several concurrent research projects. In one project, Zhang aimed to engineer "smart" bacteria to produce therapeutic products at just the right level to treat an individual patient’s condition. The research involved designing a biosensor on the bacteria’s surface that can detect protein molecules. If the disease-associated protein level is high, the bacteria will trigger targeted protein expression to treat the disease appropriately. Zhang is also working to improve the viability of bacteria for oral delivery of protein therapeutics so that they can survive the process of digestion, which occurs in a very acidic environment.

Zhang learned about working with Tech Comm from her co-advisors, Samira Azarin, PhD, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and Casim Sarkar, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering. With the help of her co-advisors and Tech Comm, Zhang submitted invention disclosures on two different innovations she’s working on, which has resulted in one provisional patent application and one application that will be filed in the future. Since Zhang is usually focused on solving fundamental research problems, Anne Hall from the UMN Tech Comm team helped change her way of thinking to identify the market needs of her work to have a higher chance of being developed into a product. They also talked with a patent attorney about different ways to protect Zhang's innovations through intellectual property in order to write the strongest patent application possible.

A piece of advice that Zhang gives to other researchers trying to create real-world solutions that can be further developed by companies is to learn about how industry operates through internships. For example, an internship with Cargill helped her learn not only how to organize her data more efficiently, but also how to propose an experiment or research project by thinking through the problems that need to be solved as well as the potential market applications.

Zhang plans to graduate in May with a PhD in chemical engineering and she has already accepted a job offer as a bioengineer at 3M. She acknowledges that both her work at Cargill and submitting two patent applications helped her prepare for the job application process and the experience helped her to stand out among other candidates. Given her accomplishments to date, Zhang will most certainly keep innovating at 3M, and her inventions will make a positive impact on society.

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