Johns Hopkins molecular biologist Zhaozhu Qiu named Sloan Research Fellow

School of Medicine researcher explores an important yet under-studied class of membrane proteins in cells

Johns Hopkins molecular biologist Zhaozhu Qiu, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology with a joint appointment in Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has been named a 2020 Sloan Research Fellow.

Awarded annually to the brightest and most promising young researchers across the U.S. and Canada by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Sloan Research Fellowship is among the most prestigious awards available to early career scientists. Qiu is one of 126 scientists selected for the honor this year.

Zhaozhu Qiu

Image caption: Zhaozhu Qiu

The Sloan Research Fellowship is open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. The fellowship is accompanied by a two-year, $75,000 financial award to advance the researcher's work.

Qiu's research centers on an important class of cell-membrane embedded proteins, called ion channels, which are essential gatekeepers that control the flow of ions and molecules in and out of the cells. While researchers in this field commonly focus on channels that conduct positively charged ions such as sodium, potassium, and calcium, Qiu and his research group study the lesser understood channels that conduct chloride, the only major negatively charged ion in the body. Mutations in chloride channels cause a variety of human diseases, including cystic fibrosis, the most common genetic disorder in white people. Qiu notes that ion channel modulators are a very successful drug class, so the more that is known about the biology and genetic origins of these channels, the more successful these drugs can be.

"We think of ourselves as gene hunters," Qiu says. "It's actually hard to believe that although the human genome was sequenced nearly 20 years ago, there are still many membrane channels whose genetic blueprints we don't know. Using a genome-based approach, we are trying to decode those channel genes and find out their function in the body. We hope to target these chloride channels in the future if they are involved in disease. Sloan Fellowship funds will help us to achieve this long-term research goal."

Qiu's research has already led to several scientific breakthroughs in cell biology. He and his research team identified a long-sought chloride channel protein, dubbed SWELL1, which facilitates one of the most basic functions of cells: regulating volume to keep from swelling excessively. Recently, they discovered another unknown protein that forms a proton-activated chloride channel in the cell membrane.

"Zhaozhu is an extraordinarily creative and accomplished ion channel physiologist. He is also a wonderful colleague."
Jeremy Nathans
Professor of molecular biology and genetics, neuroscience, and ophthalmology

"The discovery of the acid-sensing PAC protein has implications for many forms of human disease that involve increased acidity," Qiu says. "For example, our initial results suggest PAC contributes to neuronal cell death after stroke, which acidifies the brain tissue due to the constricted blood flow and the lack of oxygen."

For his work on diverse ion channels, Qiu has been named a Klingenstein-Simons Fellow in Neuroscience, received a Johns Hopkins Catalyst Award, and earned a National Institutes of Health MIRA Award. He joined the School of Medicine in 2016 after completing postdoctoral work at the Scripps Research Institute. He earned his doctorate at Columbia University.

Qiu was nominated for the Sloan Research Fellowship by his mentor and colleague, Jeremy Nathans, a professor of molecular biology and genetics, neuroscience, and ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"Zhaozhu is an extraordinarily creative and accomplished ion channel physiologist," Nathans says. "He is also a wonderful colleague."

Since the Sloan Research Fellowships were first awarded in 1955, more than 5,800 exceptional early-career researchers have received the award, including 78 faculty from Johns Hopkins University.