Bin Cao, PhD, a Washington University postdoctoral researcher who studies how the placenta protects the fetus from infections such as Zika virus, has been named a 2017 Wunderkind by the national biomedical publication STAT News. The award honors young scientists and doctors who are blazing new trails in research and public health at the start of what promises to be impressive careers.
Cao, who works in the laboratory of Indira Mysorekar, PhD, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, studies why some women develop complications during their pregnancies and others do not. He provided key evidence for a link between autophagy – the cellular waste-disposal pathway by which cells grind up debris and microbes – and a healthy pregnancy, with a study showing that the placentas of women who gave birth prematurely frequently exhibited reduced autophagy activity and showed signs of infection.
In 2016, as epidemiological studies from Brazil began to show that Zika can cause severe brain damage in fetuses, Cao collaborated with other researchers to show how the virus breaches the formidable placental barrier. He helped evaluate ways to protect fetuses, co-authoring papers showing that an antibody-based drug and a vaccine both shield fetuses from Zika circulating in their mothers’ bloodstreams. He also found that Zika can hijack the normally protective autophagy pathway, aiding the virus’s attack on the placenta, and that a common malaria drug can block this process, protecting fetuses from infection.
After more than five years at Washington University, Cao is applying for faculty positions in his native China, where he intends to continue studying pregnancy complications.