Growing up in China, natural remedies were core to Zhibin Liang’s tradition. But as he got older, he realized that while herbal medicine often consists of boiling up or mixing certain plants to exploit their healing power, “you don’t know what really cures the disease — everything is just a mixture,” he said.
The Western approach to medicine was different. “The most important [thing] in the scientific way is what is the active compound,” said Liang. He wanted to apply that approach to natural remedies, finding the active ingredient and narrowing down what in them was curative.
As an undergraduate student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, he worked on a research project investigating specific compounds produced by marine microbes as a potential treatment for cancer. This led him to the University of Hawaii, where he continued his research as a master’s and then Ph.D. student, in natural product chemistry and discovery, first working on cancer treatment and then focusing on Alzheimer’s, the effects of which he had witnessed firsthand in his grandparents.
Today, Liang’s research at Salk focuses on using cannabinol — a non-psychoactive cannabinoid — to treat Alzheimer’s, approaching treatment for the neurodegenerative disease from a new perspective. Most research currently focuses on targeting the proteins potentially responsible for Alzheimer’s — but what if there is a natural compound that could strengthen the mitochondria so that cells are more resilient against the disease? “My research goal in the future is to lead to the development of a next generation of mitochondria-targeting therapies,” he said.
— Annalisa Merelli