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Zemin Zhang, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Life Sciences, Peking University

Where your heart longs, your steps follow

A relative’s cancer diagnosis prompted Zemin Zhang’s return to China. He gave up his executive job at a renowned pharmaceutical company in the US and returned to campus in China — as a professor at the School of Life Science, Peking University. Devoting his efforts to cancer research, Zhang and his team aim to advance cancer immunotherapy and targeted therapies in the hope of curing cancer one day.

“If one of your relatives is diagnosed with cancer, how would you help?” Professor Zemin Zhang asks his graduate students this same question every year during enrollment at the School of Life Sciences, Peking University.

To him, the question isn’t hypothetical. It’s his real-life experience.

Zhang was in the United States working at Genentech, surrounded by top cancer experts, when he learned that his sister had breast cancer. He was sure that he could help her somehow, at least finding the best cutting-edge treatment for her condition. Contrary to his expectation, instead of performing pathological diagnosis and molecular typing, local physicians sent his sister straight to surgery and applied chemotherapy. The side effects of the treatment wore her out significantly.

The experience became a pivotal moment for him—with all his accomplishments overseas, what does it mean if he could not help his family?

Many years later, Zhang still feels a sense of somberness every time he recalls the event. The experience became a pivotal moment for him—with all his accomplishments overseas, what does it mean if he could not help his family?—and he started to consider returning to China.

Where your heart longs, your steps follow. “Returning to China, I wanted to devote myself to cancer research for my home country and strive towards every cancer scientist’s ultimate goal—curing cancer,” says Zhang.

Transitioning from an American executive to a Chinese professor

After graduating from Nankai University, Zhang continued his PhD study in the United States, eventually joining Genentech/Roche and focusing on discovering targeted therapies in tumors. Zhang worked at the world-leading pharmaceutical company for nearly 17 years, becoming the director and principal scientist of bioinformatics while leading efforts in cancer genomics. He has also made direct contributions to the identification of molecular targets for multiple cancer treatment drugs.

Returning to China at the peak of Zhang’s career not only means that he’s giving up his cushy job, but it also pulls him away from the world’s cancer research hub. Was he stepping in the wrong direction?

Standing at an intersection without navigation, you never know which road will lead you to your destination. Zhang saw scientists who returned to China early in their career seizing great opportunities and succeeding in their fields. “I wondered what facilitated their success,” he said. Zhang was curious and eager.

In 2014, Zhang joined Peking University as a professor at the invitation of Xiaoliang Xie, current director of Peking University’s Biomedical Pioneering Innovation Center. After returning to China, Xie’s words rang true to Zhang’s ears, “In Beijing, you can do research that you can’t in the United States.”

Of the approximately 25 entities, 20 immediately responded, forming the world’s largest single-cell research alliance for COVID-19.

“Some projects are difficult to carry out in the United States but easier in China,” says Zhang. He cited the alliance jointly formed by research institutions to investigate COVID-19 through single-cell research that launched last year as an example. “We contacted every research unit working on single-cell and COVID-19. Of the approximately 25 entities, 20 immediately responded, forming the world’s largest single-cell research alliance for COVID-19. This is completely impossible abroad!” Zhang praised the country’s dynamic scientific research environment and strong government support, making more extensive studies possible.

Changing research directions and optimism about cancer immunotherapy

Zhang spent over a decade studying cancer cells in the United States. Now, he and his team focus on the tumor immune microenvironment from a single-cell perspective, hoping to promote cancer immunotherapy and targeted therapy developments.

The change in research direction requires the advancement of bioinformatics technologies and reestablishing the understanding of tumors—from targeting cancer cells to stimulating and strengthening the immune system’s autonomous immune defense, which is not trivial.

In an ever-changing world, people achieve excellency by meeting challenges head-on, especially for scientists like Zhang. He believes that the most crucial thing in scientific research “is intriguing and has transformational value.”

“Cancer immunotherapy is destined to become a central direction in the field of cancer treatment,” says Zhang. He’s not the only one who thinks that. In 2018, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to American scientist James Allison and Japanese scientist Tasuku Honjo for their contributions to cancer immunotherapy. The attention promoted immunotherapy research overnight, and it has become one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic fields in the biomedical community worldwide.

In recent years, Zhang and his team have published several studies in renowned journals Cell and Nature, bringing forth novel ideas for cancer immunotherapy development. With hard work and perseverance, Zhang, who “intruded” on the academic running track, became one of the top contestants, leading the race with confidence and talent. “In terms of studying tumor immune microenvironment from a single-cell perspective, I think our team may have done the most concentrated research and is also relatively advanced” he says.

Looking forward to discovering new cancer targets in China in the next 10 years

From the United States to China and from corporations to universities, Zhang was not sure whether he made the right choice before returning to China. Now, he has the answer: “From a research perspective, it has exceeded my expectation.” His success is closely related to the rapid growth in China’s cancer research and clinical practice.

With groups of exceptional scientists returning to China from abroad and the emergence of outstanding local scientists, the country is rapidly catching up with leading countries in cancer research and is even leading the race in some new topics.

If scientific research funding and university talents are the fuel that drives cancer research, close cooperation with clinical resources is the catalyst that accelerates this development. “Beijing has a wealth of clinical resources. On top of that, doctors and patients are highly cooperative, which helps observe the patients’ immune characteristics and dynamic changes during the treatment process,” says Zhang. He feels that these results are difficult to achieve abroad.

Looking at the next 10 years of cancer research development in China, Zhang hopes that the country can discover new cancer targets. “I hope that in the future, new anticancer targets that are as important as PD-1 can emerge in China.”

PD-1 is a crucial immunosuppressive molecule in the cancer research field, which enables tumor cells to escape from the immune system. PD-1 inhibitor drugs have shown efficacy in various cancer treatments, prompting dozens of Chinese companies to follow up in research or production. But, unfortunately, China has yet to discover notable targets on its own. “I hope we can identify some new targets and transform them from basic research into a novel anticancer intervention,” says Zhang.

In Zhang’s head, he can already see the goal. All that is left to do is keep chasing and persevere until he reaches the finish line.