Connecting Bench to Bedside: Patents for Patients

Alum Iowis Zhu now has patents pending for his work designing immunotherapy ‘toolkits’ that may help patients fight cancer.

Six years ago, Iowis Zhu (B.S. ’16, biological sciences; B.S. ’16, biochemistry) graduated from the University of Maryland with the University Medal and aspirations of successfully blending laboratory research with clinical care.

Iowis at Keystone Symposium
Zhu at the annual conference Keystone Symposia, where he presented a short talk. Image courtesy of same.

Now, he’s on track to receive his M.D. and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of California, San Francisco.  

Zhu is already making incredible strides in the world of immunotherapy, an emerging field that holds promise as a more effective way of treating cancer. He was recently granted a patent related to his work with engineered immune cells and has filed for several others. His designs, which emphasize safety and increased specificity, have resulted in comprehensive “toolkits” for biomedical researchers to use as they develop cell-based therapies to treat cancer patients.   

“Compared to traditional drugs, immunotherapy can be a safer and more precise approach to treating cancer because we can use a patient’s own cells to fight the disease,” Zhu said. “Immunotherapy has applications in many different fields, from dermatology to oncology. With engineered immune cells, we can further customize medical treatments.”

This versatility of immunotherapy is a major reason why Zhu is so passionate about their applications. And according to Zhu, his adventures as an undergrad at UMD gave him the jump start he needed to launch him into the world of synthetic immunology and biology research.

As a member of the Integrated Life Sciences program in the Honors College, Zhu connected with resources and faculty members that helped him pursue his interest in developing better drug and treatment delivery methods. UMD Chemistry and Biochemistry Associate Professor Jason Kahn helped supervise Zhu’s research into protein-DNA complexes, DNA looping and DNA topology.     

Iowis with wife at UMD
Iowis, proud Science Terp, revisits UMD with his wife. Image courtesy of Iowis Zhu.

“My experiences at UMD, particularly in the lab and in the classroom, gave me a little bit of a running start with the research work I’m doing now,” Zhu explained. “Studying abroad and being exposed to other ideas was definitely a big help. But even outside of class, I garnered a lot of helpful skills that still enhance my current work. Leading and founding the UMD iGEM team, for example, not only built up my foundation in fieldwork but also in leadership and collaborative skills.”

The UMD iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team continues to thrive, with new Science Terps developing interdisciplinary solutions to grand challenges—a tradition that Zhu hopes will carry on into the future. 

“The coolest thing about being a scientist is also the biggest challenge. We’re always facing the unknown and sometimes we never know what exactly we’re looking for,” Zhu said. “But important breakthroughs can come from just looking at interesting outcomes and working from there.”

His outlook on science is one he applies to his personal life as well. Zhu believes that living a diverse lifestyle can be helpful for “connecting the bench with the bedside”–in other words, linking lab work with patient care. 

Living in San Francisco, with its steep rolling hills and famous street trolleys, fuels Zhu’s adventurous approach to both life and biomedical science. He has trekked through Yosemite, gone wine-tasting in Napa Valley, learned conversational Japanese and attended performances by the San Francisco Symphony. During the height of the COVID pandemic, Zhu also worked as a contact tracer to help keep his community safe.

Looking back on his experiences, Zhu offered this advice for incoming College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences students: “Work hard, but try to be unique and have something that people would remember you for. Take extracurriculars and interesting electives and join one of the many awesome student orgs thriving here. Live a life that’s full of variety. Be bold while you’re here on campus.”

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.