Dr. Shaohua Wang, assistant professor of medical microbiology, is a relative newcomer to the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, joining the college seven months ago. We took some time to sit down with her and discuss her research, her time at the Heritage College and what initially drew her to microbial studies.
Q: We’d love to know more about your backstory. Did you always want to be involved with medicine?
A: Thanks for your good question! I’m very interested in bacterial studies, especially those leading to human health improvement and human diseases therapy. I feel the microbial world is very mysterious, but applying research findings in ways that benefit humans is meaningful. So, I chose my major as microbiology during my graduate training, and I studied probiotics, which are live microbes demonstrating health benefits. Since then, I have been engaged in improving human health through genetic engineering to advance benefits of probiotics, and to enhance production of their beneficial metabolites. My research with pathogenic strains starts with Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile), the culprit causing gut diarrhea and disturbing 500,000 illnesses yearly in the U.S. As we know, our health, like gut health, is the balance of good, such as probiotics, and bad, such as pathogenic strains, staph. With experience in both probiotics and pathogens studies, I enjoy solving problems in the medical field, especially bacterial infection like C. difficile.
Q: Your research looks into bacterial infections, microbiomes of the gut, and things of that overall nature. We also saw on ResearchGate that you have over 48 publications. What would you say are some of your research highlights?
A: My major research highlights can be listed as development of gut microbiome modulators against C. difficile infection, genetic engineering of C. difficile and other Clostridioides bacteria, development of human-original probiotic cocktail and their effects on gut health and anti-aging and lactic acid bacteria phages.
For the first interest, I demonstrated that metformin, which is a safe, inexpensive FDA approved antidiabetic drug, reduces cell growth of C. difficile in-vitro, as well as ex-vivo in a human microbiome culture system. These results indicate the possibility of re-purposing metformin for prevention and treatment of C. difficile infections.
For the second, I developed a genetic engineering system via CRISPR-Cas9 for C. difficile strain, knocking genes in or out in C. difficile. I also constructed various efficient genome engineering tools via CRISPR-Cas9 for other Clostridioides strains to optimize production of beneficial metabolites.
For the third, my team and I developed a human-derived probiotic cocktail with the ability to modulate gut microbiota to increase native production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), providing a potential therapy for diseases involving reduced SCFA production in the gut. Furthermore, I studied probiotics effects on gut microbiome and aging. We demonstrate that the Lactobacillus paracasei D3-5 strain could extend life span of Caenorhabditis elegans. In addition, feeding of heat-killed D3-5 to old mice prevents high-fat diet-induced metabolic dysfunctions, decreasing leaky gut and inflammation, and improving physical and cognitive functions.
For the fourth, my team and I presented the first report of the analysis of the complete genome of a Lb. fermentum bacteriophage. I also isolated and characterized a novel virulent L. bulgaricus phage as an effective strategy for inactivating and controlling bacteriophages in dairy processing plants and laboratory environments. Furthermore, I characterized the two-component cell lysis cassette composed of holin (Hyb5) and endolysin (Lyb5) encoded by the Lactobacillus fermentum temperate bacteriophage. The Lyb5 exhibited a broad lytic spectrum against Gram-positive strains, including some pathogenic strains, suggesting that Lyb5 provides a potential alternative for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes against bacterial infections.
Q: How did you get into this research? Did it stem naturally from education and experience, or was it a separate, chosen focus?
A: Naturally. Because I am interested in microbial studies, especially bacteria impacting human health, I chose to focus on probiotics studies. With my microbial and molecular techniques, I naturally extended my research to other human health related strains, including the pathogenic C. difficile. C. difficile infection is closely related to the gut microbiome; so, I am developing gut microbiome modulators as potential therapies against C. difficile infection. As probiotics and metformin are important gut microbiome modulators, I naturally include them in combating C. difficile infection. Phages are natural enemies of bacteria, and phage therapy will be a promising therapy for treating C. difficile infection. Based on my experience of phage studies, it is also natural for me to develop another research branch to explore application of phages in C. difficile infection treatment. So, with my research interests as a core to guide my choice, it happened naturally to form my current research field.
Q: What would you say your duties and responsibilities entail as an assistant professor of medical microbiology here?
A: I can separate my duties and responsibility into three aspects: teaching, research and service
I design suitable curricula, teach students about the general and updated knowledge in this field, how microbes interact with the host, and how they make the correct decisions when their patients have symptoms related to microbes.
I continue to research bacterial infections, as I seek to expand knowledge of the microbial world and its impact on human health. Students can also be involved in research studies, helping them to understand, explore and solve important questions and problems in bacterial infections.
I also serve on committees for mentoring students; participate in professional organizations to stay up to date in my field; serving as a journal editor and reviewer to prompt research in my research field. I also collaborate with other researchers to better serve students and provide expert testimony during public health emergencies.
Q: What would you say you’ve learned from your time at the Heritage College?
A: Thanks to my colleagues and students of HCOM. Although I have been here for only seven months, I learned a lot at HCOM. First, HCOM has amazing designs for classes. I have been involved in several iLab classes, which includes several professors from different fields but focus on the same topic. Besides iLab classes, HCOM sets up small groups for students to discuss the whole week's issues thoroughly. These class formats are very helpful in understanding the complicated symptoms of patients and training next-generation medical students.
Secondly, we also have communities in similar research fields, through which we can share and discuss our latest results, problems, potential strategies and good ideas among faculty and students.
Thirdly, HCOM has a very friendly environment, like a big family. Being a new member of HCOM, I never feel like I’m lonely. I have nice colleagues, amazing students and various opportunities for communication, like this opportunity you have provided to me.