Viral infections, which pose a major health threat worldwide as the recent pandemic has confirmed, begin when a viral particle fastens to the outer coating of a live cell. This treacherous adhesion process remains mysterious in many ways. Now Professor Xiaohui (Frank) Zhang of the UMass Amherst Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department is the co-principal investigator on a three-year, $446,953 award (UMass Amherst portion: $166,074) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to work with colleagues at Lehigh University, study the enigmatic mechanisms of virus-cell adhesion, and thereby understand how virus particles infect our body cells.

Zhang is collaborating with principal investigator Anand Jogota, a professor in the Bioengineering, Chemical, and Biomolecular Engineering Departments at Lehigh, where Zhang was a professor before coming to UMass Amherst in 2022, on the NSF project titled “Role of the Glycocalyx and Spike-Like Proteins in Virus-Cell Adhesion.”

As Zhang and Jogota explain, “Most vaccines and therapies work by trying to block the adhesion between the viral particle and the cell surface. It is, therefore, important to understand how virus particles infect our body's cells. In this project, the investigators propose to study the mechanisms of virus-cell adhesion.”

The researchers add that it is vital to work on methods such as vaccines that can eliminate or reduce the chance of getting infected, as the recent COVID pandemic proved beyond a doubt. This NSF research will tackle the constant medical threat of viral infection.

According to Zhang and Jogota, “The approach is two-pronged. First, computer-model simulations of virus-cell adhesion will be developed and used to study two common features of virus/cell adhesion processes: (a) the role of spike-like adhesive protrusions on the virus or cell surface; and (b) the mechanism by which viruses penetrate through the protective cell-surface coating, or the Glycocalyx.”

The second key prong of Zhang and Jogota’s NSF research is that the team will validate its computer models with intensive experimental measurements of virus adhesion to cells.

Zhang and Jogota also conclude that “The multidisciplinary and collaborative nature of this research program will provide excellent educational and training opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.”

The Frank Zhang Lab in the UMass BME department employs quantitative biophysical methods, including single-molecule detection techniques, to investigate the mechanobiology of the human circulatory system, tissue repair and regeneration, viral adhesion, and bioinspired soft materials. Zhang leads a multidisciplinary team made up of bioengineers, mechanical engineers, biophysicists, and biologists.

Zhang holds a Ph.D. in Physiology and Biophysics from the University of Miami School of Medicine, an M.S. in Biophysics from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.S. in Physics from Sun Yat-sen University in China. He completed his postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. (October 2023)

Article posted in Research