Associate Professor Digs Into Food as Medicine

When you stroll down the grocery store aisle, you may see grapefruits, blueberries, celery and other produce as healthy dietary options. Yujiang Fang, M.D., Ph.D., sees these and other fruits and vegetables as potential weapons against cancer.

The academic pathologist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology for years has investigated a variety of food extracts for their effects on different forms of cancer. More recently, he’s studied the impact on cancer cells by the COVID-19 vaccine and SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. His research about blueberries as a radiosensitizer for cervical cancer was reported by media worldwide.

“When we give treatment to cancer patients, they already are weak. If they have chemotherapy, many patients are going to suffer a lot. So we think maybe there are natural things we consume daily that can be helpful,” he says. “I believe the concept that food is medicine because it’s naturally integrated in nature. 

“If a surgery is impossible for a patient, they’re going to have radiation. We are interested not only in one vegetable’s or fruit’s effect on cancer growth; we also are very interested in whether one can be used as a radiosensitizer in combination with radiation,” he says. “By that way we can reduce the dosage of radiation and reduce the side effects.”

In all his research, Fang, a surgeon and urologist who joined the DMU faculty in 2013, strives to involve as many students as possible and help them gain skills in lab techniques, data interpretation and dissemination of their work. His lab has a reputation for producing student-authored papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals.

“He’ll definitely put in the hours to make sure you know proper laboratory techniques. He’s worked with me in the lab until 10 or 11 at night,” says Nathan “Tom” Givens, D.O.’24, who’s had four papers published with two more ready for submission. Last October, he gave podium and poster presentations about his research in Fang’s lab on the potential application of mangosteen extract in the treatment of cervical cancer at the virtual annual clinical assembly of the American College of Osteopathic Surgeons. 

That’s exciting for a medical student, to be sure, but it could be even more so for individuals with cervical cancer: Givens and his research colleagues applied 12 different treatments on SiHa cervical cancer cells using various anticancer foods including celery, cherry, mulberry, mangosteen and olive. They found that mangosteen extract impedes the growth and survival of SiHa cervical cancer cells through the downregulation of certain proteins that are highly expressed in most cancers.

“Mangosteen extract, among other antioxidant fruits, may be a promising strategy for targeted cancer immunotherapy development,” Givens says.

Dr. Yujiang Fang, left, and Brad Johnson, D.O.’24, analyze the expression of key molecules involved in prostate cancer growth.

Journey to Des Moines

When Fang’s mother was pregnant with her son, she discovered a lump in her breast. It was benign, but it made an impression on her. “She realized that when a patient needs help, a doctor is the best person they can get comfort from,” he says. “When I was very young, I was told by my parents continuously that one of the best professions is medicine.”

He earned his medical degree and Ph.D. in China and was chief resident in urology at the Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing. He then did postdoctoral work in pathology at the Collège de France in Paris and postdoctoral work in immunology at the University of Missouri, where he now is a visiting professor in its School of Medicine. His extensive training in pathology made him an ideal candidate for a position at DMU, which sought a pathologist with clinical and teaching experience.

“I like teaching. You can influence a lot of people,” he says. “As a physician, you can treat your own patients only. But because I teach, I can influence many future physicians, and each physician is going to influence many patients. Even in China, I was responsible for teaching, and based on the feedback, I was told I was a good teacher. This is my strength, so why not use my strength?”

The future physicians at DMU say he’s given them skills they’ll use in practice. 

“Having the ability to look critically at the literature is so important. It’s good to have a trained eye to discern high-quality research,” says Givens. 

“Research is an important part of the medical field for advanced treatment options,” says Theresa “Tess” Schneider, D.O.’23, who joined Fang’s lab her first year at DMU. “It’s important for students to know how the process works. There are a huge number of research papers out there, so it’s important to know how to find what you’re looking for and how to read and understand them.”

Erin Kaser, D.O.’23, praises Fang for teaching students how to communicate with other researchers and doctors and to understand what journal reviewers want to see. 

“He’s helped me stand out as a residency applicant and wrote a letter of recommendation for me. He cares a lot about his students and wants to help us get published,” she says. “He’s not only a good researcher, mentor and professor; he’s also become my friend.” 

Students in Fang’s lab recently have explored the COVID-19 vaccine’s impact on certain cancer cells, given that people with cancer have a high susceptibility to infections. In their research in 2021, then second-year D.O. student Brad Johnson and Fang found that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein involved with the COVID-19 vaccination actually reduces the survival of prostate cancer cells. The results of their investigation, conducted with researchers at the University of Missouri, was published in the prestigious journal Medical Oncology.

“To our knowledge, our publication was the first in the world to explore the link between spike protein and cancer cell survival,” Johnson says. “While there’s still a lot to discover between our work and the clinical treatment of patients, we’re delighted to play a small part in opening the door for many potential advances involving COVID-19 vaccines and cancer treatment.”

The research is especially important as COVID-19 infections and uncertainties persist. In addition, prostate cancer is estimated to have been the leading cause of new cancer cases among U.S. males in 2021, and it’s also estimated to have the second-highest mortality rate.

“We have populations who are not ready to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they fear negative effects. We wanted to know whether the vaccine would have any effect on cancer growth,” Fang says. “If the vaccine had no pro-cancer effect, that would be good. Interestingly, even at a very low dosage of the spike protein, we start to see its inhibiting effect on prostate cancer cell growth.” 

Fang demonstrates that high-quality medical and scientific research is not exclusive to major universities and research institutions. 

“We are a small university, but even a small university can do something really groundbreaking,” he says. “At DMU, we want to cultivate leaders in medicine. Brad is representative of how we’re training students. His being a parent, husband, lab member, student and a team player with excellent interpersonal skills will make Brad more successful as
a physician and colleague.” 

Fang’s resumé lists more than 100 students he’s mentored in his lab. He has produced almost 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, almost all of which he was corresponding/first author, and he’s collaborated with researchers on campus, in other states and in China. He received DMU’s Distinguished Researcher Award in 2021; the College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean’s Teaching Excellence Award in 2015 and 2022; and the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery Basic Science Faculty of the Year Award in 2015 and 2021.

“Dr. Fang is passionate about investigating new approaches to treating prostate cancer. He is relentless, pursuing research at all hours of the day and night,” says Timothy Steele, Ph.D., professor and chair of microbiology and immunology at DMU. “In addition, he mentors many student researchers and is a decorated teacher.”

Fang’s research continues to explore aspects of immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that helps one’s immune system fight cancer, and the role that natural food sources can play.

“We want a mild and effective way to treat cancer, but it needs to be safe and acceptable to patients. Now we care more about the quality of life of patients, because it’s a dignity,” he says. “That’s why we need to find some natural things that are effective and acceptable and have little side effects.

“Many health providers say food is medicine. The foods we study are things the public can easily access,” he adds. “These natural chemicals are going to open another way to treat cancer patients with less negative side effects, especially older populations who can’t handle surgeries as well.”

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