UH Hilo pharmaceutical scientist Shugeng Cao scours the ʻāina for compounds to fight cancer

Shugeng Cao and team are focusing their research on natural anticancer and antibacterial molecules from marine microorganisms and terrestrial fungi and bacteria.

Shugeng Cao stands in his lab for photo.
Shugeng Cao at the Cao Laboratory, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. (Courtesy photo/Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy)

By Elena Espinoza.

A pharmaceutical researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, who this year received both a promotion and a prestigious award for his excellence in teaching and research, has a fascinating background that includes scholarly work spanning from the island of Borneo to Harvard Medical School to Hawai‘i. He arrived at UH Hilo in 2015.

UH Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin announced Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Shugeng Cao‘s promotion at this semester’s welcome event, and presented him with the annual Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly/Creative Activities at the 2021 awards celebration. He received tenure in 2019.

Cao, at the UH Hilo Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, teaches pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, drug actions, and pharmacokinetics. He also teaches graduate courses on natural product chemistry, therapeutics, and drug actions while also conducting research at his lab at the college.

He specializes in natural products, especially those that target cancer. His investigations also include antibacterial and antifungal organisms, marine microorganisms, and herbal medicine. He has a particular fascination with small molecules and their biological functions.

Shugeng Cao: Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Academic focus: Biologically active natural products from marine and terrestrial fungi and bacteria in Hawai‘i; manipulating silent genes; herbal medicine; small molecules with biological functions in bacteria.

Previous positions: Assistant Professor, University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center; Instructor, Harvard Medical School; Senior Research Fellow, Virginia Tech.

Academic background: PhD, National University of Singapore; Postdoctoral Fellow, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard Medical School.

At the Cao Laboratory at UH Hilo, the researcher and his team, which includes postdoctoral fellows, visiting scholars, and students at different levels, are investigating the potential benefits of both native Hawaiian organisms and Asia-Pacific herbal medicine.

“The goal is to discover more biologically active compounds as drug leads for anticancer and antibiotic drug development from our unique natural sources in Hawai‘i,” explains Cao.

This work has made notable contributions to the pharmaceutical community.

“Some compounds that I have studied have been developed as lead molecules by pharmaceutical companies,” he says. “Some compounds were investigated by biologists and pharmacologists because these molecules play critical roles as biological probes. Synthetic chemists also synthesized some of my compounds for SAR [structure-activity relationship] studies.”

A natural field for a scientific researcher

Cao explains there is not much research regarding the biologically active compounds of these bountiful natural organisms and there is a lot to explore. Given this, he explains Cao Lab has ample opportunities for discovery. “It is a very good opportunity for us to be able to do this kind of research.”

Professor Cao has worked with naturally derived compounds since his time as a graduate student. While at the National University of Singapore, he did his doctoral research on tropical plants collected from the island of Borneo. After his doctoral studies, he joined the MerLion Pharmaceuticals where he studied biologically active compounds derived from bacteria, fungi, plant, and marine organisms.

From there Cao went on to join the Kingston Group at Virginia Tech, where he conducted assay-guided separation of compounds from tropical plants and marine organisms. His research led him to Harvard Medical School where he was the director of the Marcus Natural Product Lab.

In 2013, Cao was invited to work as an independent researcher at the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center. He worked at the center for two years before transferring to UH Hilo’s Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy in 2015 where he has contributed greatly to UH Hilo and the local and pharmaceutical communities for over six years.

Shugeng Cao and Carolyne Ma stand for photo.
From left, Shugeng Cao and Carolyne Ma, dean of the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, at an event welcoming new faculty to UH Hilo in 2016. (Claudia Hagan/UH Hilo Stories)

Cao Lab focuses on two research areas of pharmaceutical science: 1) compounds derived from natural sources, and 2) traditional Asian-Pacific medicine.

Native microorganisms

Similar to his previous work, Cao is now researching biologically active compounds derived from natural sources. Specifically, he and his research team are focusing on discovering new and bioactive compounds in microorganisms in Hawai‘i. The focus is on finding new anticancer and antibacterial natural products from marine and terrestrial fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms.

“[We] collect samples of organisms such as Hawaiian plants, coral, and even sediment from the ocean,” he explains. The samples are then analyzed at the lab.

Since 2013, Cao has published several papers discussing the lab’s findings. In their most recent article, the researchers discuss the potential protective benefits found from compounds in volcanic soil-associated fungi, including potential protection from acetaldehyde-induced damage in PC-12 cells.

Herbal medicine

Cao is also researching traditional Asia-Pacific medicine, specifically the benefits of herbal medicine. Through this work, the group hopes to impact the slow-growing presence of natural medicine in mainstream pharmaceuticals.

In the lab, Cao and his team work to identify the active molecules that are responsible for the contended medicinal benefits of traditionally used plants and herbs. In recent years, the researcher has been working with Asian-Pacific plants, identifying the active compounds in them and discussing their potential benefits.

In an article published in 2016, members of the Cao Lab discuss the anti-inflammatory properties of compounds found in the Asia-Pacific plant Barleria lupulina. The lab found active compounds in the plant that are “consistent with its traditional use and reported success in reducing inflammation.”

Shugeng Cao and his research team in white coats inside lab, stand for photo.
Shugeng Cao and his research team at the Cao Laboratory, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. (Courtesy photo/Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy)

Teaching and community outreach

Professor Cao says he takes pride in the work of his lab staff, especially his passionate students who work alongside him. His lab creates a space for pharmacy undergraduate and graduate students to complete their research and excel in their desired fields.

Cao shares that along with pharmacy students, his lab is open to students of all levels and similar majors.

“The lab has had at least six to seven undergraduate biology, microbiology, and chemistry students come in to conduct research so far.”

Cao explains that the lab is connected to local high schools as well, with both teachers and students. “I have teachers contacting me asking for advice or research opportunities regarding their students,” he says.

He has trained two high school students interested in pharmaceutical research. “One student was even able to receive a co-publication,” shares Cao. “I’m very proud of our ability to work with passionate students.”

Cao says local companies also have reached out to him for advice regarding their businesses in the plant industry, which he gladly shares. “They want to see things happening on the Big Island.”

Professor Cao encourages students and others with a passion for investigating pharmaceuticals to reach out to him.

“I understand the high workloads of many students, especially pharmacy students. But when students have the time, the Cao lab is open and ready for them.”

By Elena Espinoza, an English major also earning a certificate in teaching English as a second language.