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Faculty Perspective

Using chemical tools to explore host immunity and microbial pathogenesis

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An interview with Howard Hang

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What motivated you in developing your research focus?

As a student and postdoc, I was intrigued by how viruses like influenza, or bacterial pathogens like Salmonella, have evolved complicated mechanisms to get around our host defenses. The genesis of my lab was to develop and apply chemical tools to elucidate some of the key interactions that mediate host defense and microbial virulence. By understanding fundamental mechanisms of host–microbe interactions, we hope to design new ways of treating infections that will provide us with a more effective and sustainable means of preventing and treating microbial infections, which have become a major burden on global health with the emergence of new microbial pathogens and development of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs”.

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How has chemical biology has changed over the past ten years?

A revolution started when chemists realized they could develop chemical reactions to investigate biology. Ten years ago, the focus of many chemical biologists was to do chemistry in a biological context, in other words, to develop methods that were compatible with physiological conditions—cell lysates or living cells. The advances in this area of chemical biology, often termed “bioorthogonal chemistry” have been remarkable, so in the last five years the challenge has been to take these chemical methods and discover new biological mechanisms. The work from our laboratory and many others has highlighted this transformation in chemical biology, which I think is very exciting and inspires us to develop more sensitive and specific chemical tools to explore basic biology and host–pathogen interactions in particular.

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How do you teach differently than how you were taught?

As graduate students in chemistry department, we were all required to take a set of core courses in physical and synthetic organic chemistry and acquired our insights into biological systems more independently. With chemical biology now at the center of more graduate programs like TPCB, our graduate students are immersed in the fundamentals in chemistry and biology from the beginning and are challenged to stay at the forefront of new developments in the both areas. To do this, I try to teach the same fundamental chemical principles but apply them to biological systems and highlight the challenges that need to be addressed for new innovations in chemical biology. To push chemical biology forward, our graduate students really need to immerse themselves in biology and be armed with the fundamentals of chemistry.