Meet The Researcher

Michael Zhong

Dr Michael Zhong

Monash University, VIC

Let’s get started! Tell us an interesting fact about yourself...
I am left-handed, was born in Shanghai and despite growing up in Melbourne I somehow don’t mind instant coffee.
What inspired you to get involved in MS research?
Knowing people affected by MS, which fosters a shared intolerance for what it can do.
What do you think has been the most exciting development in MS research?
There are so many promising directions. I’ve been excited by the advent of big data and how it affects MS research and treatment. We can capture so many things now, and in detail finer than ever before: from bedside clinical metrics, neuroimaging, to a person’s DNA sequence. Artificial intelligence methods able to identify hidden connections within these large datasets could result in novel ways to guide prognosis or treatment.
Tell us about your current research project...
One active area of research interest is how and why MS is affected by pregnancy. It has been shown that a history of pregnancy delays MS onset and has a protective effect against disability accrual. This effect lasts for years beyond the pregnancy itself. One of my goals is to clarify the prevalence and relevance of foetal-maternal microchimaerism in women with MS. Foetal-maternal microchimaerism refers to the presence in low concentrations of foetal cells or DNA in maternal blood or tissues, which occurs as a consequence of pregnancy. These microchimaeric cells can be detected in the maternal bloodstream not only during gestation, but in some women persistently for many decades afterwards. It can be seen in both health and disease, but little is known about this phenomenon in women with MS. I aim to compare methods to detect foetally-derived microchimaeric cells in women with MS, and to examine what role these cells might have in mediating the effects of pregnancy on MS outcomes.
Why is your research important and how will it influence the understanding and treatment of MS?
The basis of the long-term effects of pregnancy on MS is important: women are disproportionately diagnosed with MS and onset is usually around the childbearing ages. Being pregnant can reduce MS activity – one reason for this is immune tolerance: the activity of the maternal immune system is dampened to prevent rejection of the foetus and placenta. The reasons or effects of foetal-maternal microchimaerism are currently unclear but might be related to this immune tolerance. A clearer understanding of these effects might further our knowledge of the mechanisms, prognostication, or even treatment of MS.
What do you enjoy most about working in the lab and what are some of the challenges you face?
Work in the lab offers an arena for problem solving, teamwork, and project planning. It also fosters a perspective that spans small details to the big picture. It’s a great privilege to work with the samples donated by patients from our clinics, including those of people who I’ve met or treated.
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Michael Zhong