One man’s journey from a farm in China to a leading schizophrenia researcher in Wollongong
Distinguished Professor Xu-Feng Huang was a potato farmer before beginning his medical training at XuZhou Medical University in China in 1978.
He completed his degree in 1983 and worked for 12 months as a medical doctor. It was a job he loved, but he was frustrated he could not do more to help his patients who were suffering with mental illness.
“I was very stressed as a medical doctor and wanted to provide better treatments for patients, I realised I could only do this if I returned to University to focus on research,” said Distinguished Professor Huang.
In 1984 he began lecturing in China before moving to Australia. Distinguished Professor Huang has been a full time lecturer at UOW for 22 years.
He joined IHMRI in 2010 as Foundation Scientific Director of the Metabolic Continuum and has been Clinical leader of the Mental Health and the Ageing Brain theme since 2017.
In over two decades Distinguished Professor Huang has been awarded $13.4 million dollars in research funding. Over his career, he has been the recipient of 13 prestigious NHMRC grants with eight of those as the lead Chief Investigator.
He was recently awarded another NHMRC Investigator Grant worth $1.5 million to further his research towards better treatments for schizophrenia.
Professor Huang’s research program is investigating the neuropathology and side-effects induced by antipsychotic drugs in schizophrenia. Current treatment largely relies on pharmacotherapy (drug treatment) which does not directly address the fundamental neuropathology and can cause severe metabolic side effects such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. Metabolic syndrome is responsible for more than 50% of mortality in schizophrenia patients.
“My overall goal is to improve patient treatment outcomes. To do that our research program aims to identify new therapeutic solutions to address the brain’s nervous system for people with schizophrenia,” said Professor Huang.
He takes a top-down approach taking the most relevant clinical questions to laboratory, which are that new drugs should directly address the pathology, and reduce metabolic and cortical thinning side effects.
To date the team has invented some new compounds for drugs, modified existing compounds, and investigated the application of smart electrical stimulation in the brain, in collaboration with the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute (IPRI) led by his colleague Distinguished Professor Gordon Wallace.
Distinguished Professor Huang’s team has been able to prevent and treat neurite and synaptic spine pathology, a known symptom of schizophrenia, in preclinical trials.
They have shown a chemical imbalance contributes to this pathology and by modifying this imbalance, neurite and synaptic spine deficits can be reduced, and the behaviour rodent models relevant to schizophrenia largely improved.
With this new injection of funds from the NHMRC Professor Huang will be able to continue through to 2024 combining the pathology research and investigation of new drugs.
Louise Negline, Communications Coordinator
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Top photo: Distinguished Professor Xu-Feng Huang. Photo by Trudy Simpkin.