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February 22, 2007

Aaron Baca, 404-651-1444
University Relations

Georgia State University cancer researcher wins distinguished scholar award

Yujun (George) Zheng

Georgia State University chemist Yujun (George) Zheng

ATLANTA – Georgia State University chemist Yujun (George) Zheng thinks there’s a good bet he can unlock some of cancer’s biggest secrets by looking in some of the tiniest places.

As it turns out, the Georgia Cancer Coalition thinks Zheng’s hunch is a good bet, too. The coalition tapped Zheng, an assistant professor of medical chemistry, as one of that organization’s Distinguished Cancer Scholars for 2007.

Zheng is searching for ways to stop cancerous growths in humans by studying the workings of specialized strands of protein called histones, which regulate gene development and cell growth. His research might lead to the development of new compounds that researchers hope can turn off a cancer cell’s ability to copy itself. If cancer cells can be turned off, then doctors will have a much greater chance of ridding the body of them.

As part of his selection as a distinguished scholar, Zheng will receive $50,000 annually for five years to support his research at Georgia State. Zheng is one of only 13 scientists this year to be named as Distinguished Scholars by the Cancer Coalition.

“I’m excited because this award will definitely help keep my research going. I think the Georgia Cancer Coalition believes chemical biology has significant applications in future cancer therapy,” Zheng said.

Zheng said he chose to come to Georgia State University because he saw the best chance to combine chemistry research with biology in Atlanta. “It is becoming increasingly important to use chemistry to look for answers to problems in biology and my research really needs this multidisciplinary approach,” Zheng said.

Zheng has a joint appointment within the Biology Department as part of the Center for Biotechnology and Drug Design. His research is a model of work that increasingly straddles different academic fields of study, said Chemistry Department Chairman Al Baumstark.

“There are a lot of schools now trying to pair their chemistry and biology departments to conduct research like this. As it turns out, Georgia State is ahead of the curve in that our departments have already been working together on common research for years,” Baumstark said.

In his lab, Zheng conducts research on histones, which are strands of protein around which DNA is attached. Histones are located within the nucleus of a cell. It is believed out-of-control cellular growths like cancer and other cellular damage can be stopped if researchers can determine how to turn off certain “switches” encoded in histones.

Zheng, who is studying the effects of amino acid-based compounds as a way of modifying histones to activate these switches, joined Georgia State’s chemistry department last August.

“He is an extraordinary young scientist,” said Lauren Adamson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “His experience and training in cancer chemical biology will be an asset to our new Molecular Basis of Disease Initiative. I am confident that his work will help increase our understanding of how molecular malfunction is linked to cancer disease.”

The Distinguished Scholar program was created to bolster local cancer research and to help attract talented researchers to the state.

“The Distinguished Cancer Clinicians and Scientists program is the cornerstone of the Georgia Cancer Coalition’s efforts to advance scientific discovery into the prevention, treatment, causes and cures of cancer. These scientists play an important role in positioning Georgia as a national leader in Cancer research,” said Bill Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition.

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