Liu journeys from forestry research to using plants to battle human disease

Linda Benedict, LaBauve, Randy  |  1/17/2013 9:20:27 PM

Zhijun Liu, professor in the LSU AgCenter School of Renewable Natural Resources, could have taken any number of career paths. He grew up in Henan Province, the cradle of Chinese culture and civilization and succeeded academically, while developing natural talents in music.

Liu learned to proficiently play multiple instruments, including the violin, erhu, accordion and others. If he would have further developed his musical skills, he could have become a concert conductor, he said.

He really wanted to be an engineer, but because of the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, his college options were restricted to forestry studies. Encouraged by his teachers and parents, he entered a field he didn’t like at first.

But Liu excelled in forestry, earned his undergraduate degree from Henan Agricultural University and was offered the opportunity to come to the United States to further his studies. He earned an M.S. from Oklahoma State University and a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.

Initially, Liu’s research focused on tree physiology and how to help grow bigger, taller trees. A year into his work with the LSU AgCenter, administrators asked him if he would be interested in growing trees believed to have cancer- fighting properties.

Liu’s affirmative response would become a turning point in his career. For the ensuing 20 years, he has worked with medicinal plants, blossoming new technologies and applications for the improvement of human health.

“My career began to move from timber into leaves and bark, parts typically discarded by the forest products industry,” Liu said.

In his first project, Liu used a forestry technique called “coppicing” to grow an annual crop of shoots from Tree of Joy plants. The shoot tips are rich in the chemical camptothecin, which is similar to alkaloids in the foliage of tea plants.

One project brought him back to China to gather and study extracts of sweet leaf tea plants, which, in collaborative studies with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, were shown to minimize the recurrence of certain types of cancer and to have effectiveness in decreasing obesity.
 
Liu’s first phase of research had expanded from traditional forestry into growing trees as medicinal plants. Next, he embarked upon a scientific journey to extract, purify and isolate active natural compounds, a field called natural product chemistry.

Subsequently, Liu and his researchers assumed a prominent worldwide position in addressing the problematic issue of poor solubility. Liu and his medicinal plants team developed safe, natural solubilizers and formulations for pharmaceutical drugs and nutraceutical compounds and perfected extraction processes that can improve the absorption rate of life-saving medicines, while decreasing levels of toxicity.

The LSU AgCenter Medicinal Plants Lab is one of the very few in the world doing solubility research of this kind, according to Liu.

Most recently, Liu’s expanding research has focused on the integration of patented technologies that can directly improve the effectiveness of supplements and pharmaceutical drugs.

Liu became proficient in various new disciplines by studying scientific literature and adapting his research methods. He has received four highly coveted National Institutes of Health grants and secured numerous patents for the LSU AgCenter.

“When I do my research, I set my mind on finding practical solutions – real applicable technologies that can launch health-benefitting products,” Liu said.

Because of his agricultural background, some medical and pharmaceutical experts initially viewed his research findings as the proverbial frog at the bottom of a water well, looking up only to see a small part of the sky, he said. It’s a Chinese idiom expressing a limited vision.

But Liu has patiently overcome those stereotypes, built a reputation and initiated collaborative efforts with prestigious medical organizations like M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Although Liu didn’t become a concert conductor, he has orchestrated successful research projects with professionals in diverse disciplines such as cardiology, obesity, microbiology, dentistry, oncology, veterinary medicine and toxicology.

“I learned to listen, to hear their challenges, to understand the problems and come up with solutions,” Liu said.

Randy LaBauve is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)

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