Zhang Driven By Love of Science To Improve Oral Health Research

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Dr. Yanhui Zhang (Photo by Jackie Denton/UTHSC)

Yanhui Zhang, PhD, enjoys gaining scientific knowledge and improving public health through research. Currently, her focus is on oral health and how saliva influences it.

“Saliva lubricates the oral cavity, protects the teeth by buffering the acids produced by bacteria, initiates digestion, and facilitates taste and speech,” she said. “It contains thousands of proteins and hundreds of metabolites. Most people don’t realize the importance of saliva, until they have dry mouth (xerostomia). Can you imagine how we would chew or swallow or speak without saliva?”

Dr. Zhang is an assistant professor in the Bioscience Research Center in the Department of Bioscience Research in the College of Dentistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. She is originally from China. She received her PhD in microbiology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and completed her postdoctoral training at University of Bath in the United Kingdom and UTHSC, before becoming an assistant professor at UTHSC in 2011.

Her love of science and encouragement from mentors, friends, and family prompted Dr. Zhang to pursue research.

“Stay positive, believe in yourself, and believe in people,” she advises other women interested in pursuing research. “Work hard and never give up.”

Dr. Zhang’s research focuses on basic, clinical, and translational studies on dental plaque and saliva, as well as oral cancer. “This research area is vital because the findings will help us better understand oral health and improve oral care,” she said.

Dr. Zhang has several research studies in progress at UTHSC. These include studying the roles of tetraspanins, proteins that regulate cancer progression and metastasis, as well as investigating the oral microbiome in pediatric obesity and metabolic disease. She also has several studies that involve saliva and dental plaque.

She says her most interesting finding has been quantifying the expression of tetraspanin genes and proteins in oral cancer cells, which will help determine their role in oral cancer. “We have optimized the condition and methods for dental plaque and saliva studies,” Dr. Zhang said. “We are excited to apply these methods in facilitating the development of oral care therapeutics to improve oral health.”