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A day in the life: Zhen Li, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia researcher

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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23 Feb 2018

Zhen Li is a Bloodwise-funded researcher who wants to know if sugar molecules called glycans play a role in the development of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). Zhen tells us about changing career from chemistry to biology, her work in Professor Ten Feizi’s lab at Imperial College London, and her plans to run the London Royal Parks Half Marathon 2018 for Bloodwise.

Zhen Li at work in the lab researching chronic lymphocytic leukaemia

How did you become interested in blood cancer research?

Attracted by the magic of pharmacy, I started my PhD in Pharmaceutical Engineering at East China University of Science & Technology, where I made drugs. During my PhD, I became very interested in the biological functions of glycans (molecules in and on our cells that are made up strings of sugar molecules), and I applied to visit Professor Ten Feizi’s lab, because she specialises in this field. This helped me gain a deeper understanding of and interest in the biology of glycans, and I was lucky enough to secure a position with Professor Feizi after my PhD.

What are you working on?

I’m working with Professor Feizi on a Bloodwise-funded project, which is looking at what role glycans play in the development of CLL. I am working on B cell CLL, the most common adult leukaemia in the West. B cells are a type of white blood cell that play an important role in the immune system. B cells have B cell receptors (BCRs) on their cell surfaces. These BCRs can bind to antigens (molecules which can cause an immune response). Some antigens are glycans, and we are investigating how BCRs recognise these glycan antigens, since this may play a role in the progression of CLL. We use carbohydrate microarray technology (developed by Professor Feizi and colleagues) to identify which antigens are recognised by BCRs.

Diagram displaying how carbohydrate microarray works

In the picture above, I am holding a carbohydrate microarray slide. Glycans are used to make the glycan probes, which can be held on a glass slide. You can see 256 green spots in the upper left – each of them represents a different glycan probe, which can bind to a BCR.  After the BCRs are laid onto the slides, the glycan probes that have bound to BCRs can be seen as the red spots. We then identify which glycan(s) have bound to the BCRs with our dedicated glycan array software.

Why do we need the research you do?

By revealing the antigens recognized by BCRs, we hope to find clues to important questions in CLL research: which B lymphocytes are selected to become cancerous B cells, and whether the antigens are involved in the growth of CLL cells. If we are successful, new treatments can be developed based on our findings.

What does your work mean for people who have blood cancer?

While CLL can be controlled for years with treatment, it remains an incurable disease, and it is still not clear what causes CLL. Our research could help understand whether the sugars we eat (such as sugars in red meat), the sugars that are found on the surface of bacteria, or the sugars that appear on our own cells have a role in the development of CLL. This could lead to new ways of treating CLL, for example designing molecules that can stop cancer cells from dividing.

What do you do in the lab on a day-to-day basis?

A day in the lab is very fast-paced and full of different tasks.  My day starts with scanning through publications in my research area to keep up with the latest developments. A large part of the day goes to planning, carrying out experiments, collecting and analysing data. Also, discussions with Professor Feizi and other colleagues are important for me to decide what the next steps are in my research. 

Your research involves collaboration with Professor Carel van Noesel’s lab at the University of Amsterdam. How does a cross-country collaboration like this work?

Professor Feizi’s and Professor van Noesel’s labs have different specialities. Professor van Noesel’s group studies BCRs that are seen in CLL and the antigens they may recognise. These BCRs are sent to our lab and analysed on the carbohydrate microarrays to identify the antigens they recognise.

What common misconceptions do people have about your job?

People often think I am working with sugars that we eat! However, carbohydrates cover our cell surfaces like a sugar coat and they actually have many roles in the human body such as helping cells interact with each other, helping tissues to regenerate, being bound to viruses or bacteria, and, as in my research, being bound by the BCRs and stimulating the growth of CLL cells.

What's your favourite thing about your work?

For me, the most interesting thing about being a scientist is that it offers the constant excitement of new discoveries. The new knowledge is not generated all of a sudden but based on the day-to day discoveries. Analysing new findings and connecting them to generate a conclusion is like putting together parts of a jigsaw puzzle and getting to a much clearer view of the big picture.

What's one of the hardest things about your work?

I started out as a chemist and I have become a biologist, which was a difficult change. New terms and technologies are like a sea of knowledge which needs to be navigated. This sometimes makes it difficult for me to get insights into some aspects of my research. However, I enjoy the challenge and I am learning a lot.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab?

When I am not in the lab I like running and taking part in marathons. Once I took part in the Windsor half marathon and I felt so proud of myself at the moment when I got to the finishing line. Although a long run is quite tough, I still enjoy it very much as it keeps me fit, self-disciplined, energetic, releases stress and also gives me a chance to breathe fresh air. This year I am planning to run for Bloodwise in the London Royal Parks Half Marathon!

What’s next for you?

This is a good question and it is the right time for me to think about what’s next. Because I am a postdoctoral research associate, my job is tied to the project, which will finish in July this year, so I will need to seek a new job. I like doing science, so staying in academia will be my first choice.

Is there anything you’d like to say to Bloodwise supporters?

I would like to express my gratitude to Bloodwise supporters for funding my research on CLL. We have made exciting progress in understanding BCR antigens in CLL and we are very happy to be making contributions to understanding CLL progression that will contribute to beating this disease.

If you’d like to join Zhen in running, cycling or swimming to raise money for Bloodwise, you can find out more about our events and challenges.

Read our patient information about CLL. Our Support Line is also open Monday-Friday 10am-4pm on 0808 2080 888.

Find out more about the CLL research that we fund.

We will be back in March with another day in the life.