Dr Wang Zhongfang - Flu researcher

Dr Wang

Dr Wang Zhongfang - Flu researcher

These days, the flu can be too easily dismissed by people as a troublesome yearly threat, but it can still be one of the world’s deadliest viral infections – especially for the old, the young or the weak.

It has only been a century since the Spanish flu of 1918 killed up to 40 million people worldwide. That’s why Dr Zhongfang Wang has dedicated his life to learning how to fight it.

“The flu is one of the biggest threats to global health, because people are moving so regularly around the world,” says Dr Wang, an influenza researcher and honorary research fellow of microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.

“But we still don’t know how some human flu infections get so severe, and why we have a big pandemic every 30 or 40 years.”

Since the flu can affect everyone around the world, and is so closely related to how people interact, Dr Wang says collaboration is key to influenza research.

“Researchers in every country have their knowledge and techniques. When we share what we know, we can be quicker in identifying viruses, developing vaccines and controlling them. It’s the best thing for public health.”

Dr Wang began work earlier this year as a professor and principal investigator at China’s Guangzhou Medical University, where he studies human immunity against emerging infectious diseases. He wanted to be closer to Guangdong Province, ground zero for a very well-known epicentre of emerging diseases such as SARS-CoV and highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.

But Dr Wang spent the previous six years cutting his teeth at the world-renowned Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and he returns regularly for collaboration with immunologists working there.

“It’s good for Melbourne Uni to have a connection to Guangdong Province, which is the frontline for flu research,” he says. “And I was able to set up my own group in Guangzhou because of my experience in Melbourne.”

Dr Wang first moved to Australia in 2012, when he started his post-doctoral research at the Doherty Institute, supported by an Australia-China Exchange Early Career Fellowship grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

He had spent the early part of his education in his native China – at Beijing’s top Peking Union Medical College. But by 2006, Dr Wang says he knew he needed to broaden his horizon for the next step in his career.

“At that time, I realised I needed to go abroad to study because my knowledge was limited to China,” he explains.

He journeyed first to Germany’s University of Giessen, where he earned his PhD in medical virology, before making the move to Melbourne.

“At that time, I didn’t know much about Australia. I had heard it was very sunny, very relaxed and friendly,” he says with a laugh. “But I was honoured to get the NHMRC fellowship because I knew I would be working in the lab of a Nobel Prize-winning immunologist.”

Dr Wang arrived at the Doherty Institute just ahead of the outbreak of the H7N9 ‘bird flu’ virus, which first appeared in Shanghai in 2013. It was then that he saw an opportunity to put his Chinese background and position at the Doherty to good use.

With input and encouragement from his supervisor, Professor Katherine Kedzierska, head of the Doherty’s Human T-cell Laboratory, Dr Wang began working with researchers at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre at Fudan University.

Their work resulted in several notable discoveries, including a genetic marker that made H7N9 patients susceptible to more severe forms of the virus. They also found that immunity to the virus was strongly linked to a kind of white blood cell – the CD8 T-cell.

Dr Wang credits the success of the project to his supervisors, Professor Kedzierska and Professor Doherty, with whom he regularly consulted on the project.

“Peter has so much vision. And I got all the support from Katherine and from the Institute,” he says. “They said to never reject any opportunity for collaboration. They’re very passionate about this.”

Their work with Fudan University led Professor Kedzierska and Dr Wang to develop a long-term research collaboration between Fudan and Melbourne.

He was able to continue his work at the Doherty Institute with three additional project grants from the Australia-China Science and Research Group Mission, the University of Melbourne International Research and Research Training Fund, and the Early Career Research Fellowship from the University.

Dr Wang says the collaborative, creative and personal nature of his work at the Doherty took him by surprise. He was used to a top-down approach to education, but in Melbourne, his colleagues encouraged him to go where the work led him.

“Sometimes I would spread my research data on the table in the lab and everyone, Peter and Katherine, would come around and look and help me think about it,” he says. “Even when I was frustrated they would encourage me to keep going.”

Now setting up his own lab in Guangzhou, Dr Wang says he’s glad he travelled the world for the connections he made.

“Here, I’m on the front line for infectious disease research,” he says. “And I have a network all over the world. If something happens, we can activate this network to combat emerging disease.”

by Kate Stanton