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Arnold School of Public Health

ENHS Assistant Professor Shuo Xiao brings bioengineering innovation and a reproductive health focus to the Arnold School

March 31, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

Shuo Xiao is the newest member of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS), and he’s ready to change the world—the world of female reproduction. Originally from China, the assistant professor studied preventive medicine (bachelor’s) and nutrition and toxicology (master’s) at Peking University School of Public Health in Beijing.

He then dug deeper into toxicology with a doctoral degree at the University of Georgia. While performing research with his mentor, Xiaoqin Ye, in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Xiao discovered his scientific niche. Ye’s lab focuses on female reproduction and toxicology, and it was in this environment that Xiao combined his medical and toxicology expertise.

Xiao wanted to contribute to understanding how women experience fertilization and pregnancy to deliver a healthy baby. He also wanted to understand how pharmaceutical and environmental compounds affect reproductive health and especially embryo implantation into the uterus. Xiao then went on to complete a three-year postdoctoral fellowship under Teresa K. Woodruff at Northwestern University. There, he shifted his focus to how drugs and toxins affect ovarian health to get a fuller understanding of the entire female reproductive system. 

“Remember ten years ago when BPA was not mentioned at all and notice how many products are now labeled BPA-free?” says Xiao. “Those changes are a result of this area of research.”

With his decision to join the Arnold School, Xiao has returned to his public health roots and achieved yet another dream: becoming an independent researcher and teacher. After a few years in Chicago, he and his family also liked the idea of returning to the South’s warm climate.

“When I saw the opening in the ENHS department, I knew that this position was the perfect fit for me because of my public health and toxicology backgrounds,” says Xiao. “I’m looking forward to continuing my research with a focus on the population level, and I’m looking forward to teaching the next generation of scientists and professionals.”

Although this is his first academic appointment, Xiao already has 24 peer-reviewed publications (nearly half of them as first author), including three since the start of this year. One of them, published in Toxicological Sciences, examines how chemotherapy can adversely affect young female cancer patients’ reproductive health and fertility. For this study, Xiao and the research team examined the side effects of doxorubicin, a common anticancer medication, in women’s reproductive health. Their findings indicate that certain doses of this drug greatly increase the risk of ovarian failure, early menopause, and even infertility to women during chemotherapy.

Another paper, published in Nature Communications, outlines some revolutionary research Xiao participated in during his fellowship and sets the stage for his research at UofSC. Through the National Institutes of Health’s Tissue Chip Program, researchers can safely and cost-effectively study the effects of drugs and toxins in accurate models that mimic the structure and biological processes of human organs, such as the lung, liver and heart.

Xiao and his colleagues were the first to utilize this bioengineering phenomenon to create a replica of the 28-day hormone/menstrual cycle found in the female reproductive system. They even applied for a patent based on this invention (3D Microphysiologic System). As a testament to the importance of this research, the Nature Communications paper (on which Xiao served as lead author) received widespread attention from popular press publications (e.g., National Geographic, Scientific American, New Scientist) within mere hours of its release. 

“Historically, studies have predominantly looked at males for biomedical research because they weren’t sure how to handle the female reproductive system—both the ethical concerns of impacting fertility and pregnancy and also because they didn’t know how to account for the hormone variations,” explains Xiao. “With this new device, we can study how hormones affect women’s receptivity or sensitivity to drugs and toxins in the areas of reproduction, kidney, liver, and other areas. We can also learn how men and women respond differently to drugs or environmental chemicals.”

“This new technology will allow rapid assessment of human reproductive effects in women in both clinical and environmental settings,” adds ENHS Chair Geoff Scott. “The ability to screen contaminants of emerging concern in different environmental settings with this technology is a leap forward in the more accurate prediction of health effects than traditional methodologies, and many of our students will want to incorporate this technology onto their research.” 

In his new Reproductive Toxicology Laboratory, Xiao looks forward to such collaborations and advancing the field through his own research program. “I want to use the female reproductive tract on the tissue chip we created to learn how pharmaceutical and environmental chemicals adversely affect health,” says Xiao, who is already partnering with biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to supply compounds for this research. “I’m particularly interested in learning how these elements impact infertility, birth defects, and ovarian failure.”

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