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Chao Mao

MD Anderson Cancer Center

Before he got into studying cancer, Chao Mao was a master’s student trying to save bananas by researching a disease called banana wilt. “It’s also referred to as banana cancer, since it’s very deadly,” he said.

But while he was working on his master’s degree, his mother got breast cancer. “She was the first one to get cancer in my family,” he said. “It was really a suffering for us.”

Watching his mother struggle during treatment made him realize he wanted to work on cancer. He went back to school for his Ph.D., studying pathology at his hometown university, Central South University in Changsha, China. “My family is very supportive of my research, especially my mother.”

While working on his doctorate, Mao studied a cell death process called ferroptosis. As cells grow and create new membranes, they also create iron-dependent toxic chemicals called lipid peroxides. If cells don’t clean these up, they’ll die. Cells typically have a lot of ways to manage these lipid peroxides, but cancer cells are in particular need of them since they grow and divide so rapidly. That makes ferroptosis a potential vulnerability for cancer cells.

Mao continued this research at MD Anderson, where he discovered that a mitochondrial enzyme called DHODH helps cells defend against ferroptosis. When he blocked DHODH from working in mice with cancer, the intervention helped suppress tumor growth, suggesting the enzyme could be a valuable target in cancer therapy.

“When I showed my advisor the data, he jumped off his chair,” Mao said. “He’s a calm guy, not too emotional, but it was so exciting.”

— Angus Chen