Most of the proteins on the surface of our cells are modified by the addition of complex sugar molecules – a process called glycosylation. PhD student Mr Runyu Mao is developing new medicines that block glycosylation as a new approach to treating cancer and other diseases.

Interdisciplinary training

Runyu said his PhD project brings together a diverse array of research techniques, which have enabled him to gain new insights into the process of protein glycosylation and how to block it. He is supervised by Associate Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger, who seeks to understand how protein glycosylation is involved in disease and targeting these processes to create new medicines.

“Protein glycosylation plays a critical role in many interactions between our cells, so it makes sense that it is also involved in a range of diseases,” Runyu said. “My goal is to develop drug-like molecules that target a single glycosylation process to improve immune responses to pathogens and tumours. My research is being conducted in collaboration with the Institute’s high-throughput screening laboratory, a component of the National Drug Discovery Centre.

“Organic chemistry is a particularly important aspect of my project, but I’ve also learnt the techniques needed to generate the proteins we are studying, perform biochemical assays with this protein, and I’m now learning how to perform structural studies on these proteins.”

A highlight of Runyu’s project so far has been developing a new chemical method for synthesising some of the key molecules he is studying. “It’s the first time ever that these molecules could be synthesised in large enough quantities to permit extensive study of their biological roles. This new method has been a power tool for my project!”

“It’s been very easy to get the interdisciplinary training I’ve needed for my PhD. I think this is one of the benefits of studying at the Institute – students are very well supported in all areas of their research.”
– Runyu Mao

From Fudan to Melbourne

Runyu’s PhD studies are building on the knowledge and skills he developed as a pharmaceutical science student at Fudan University, one of China’s leading medical research universities.

“Some of my friends had been to the Institute to study through the InSPIRE program,” he said.

“They had a really great scientific experience, and this got me interested in studying here.”
– Runyu Mao

Runyu hopes to stay in academia once he completes his PhD studies. “I’d like to establish my own lab in the future,” he said.

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