Westlake News PEOPLE

Neurobiologist Qiufu Ma Joins Westlake

09, 2023

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
Phone: +86-(0)571-86886861
Office of Public Affairs

Recently, neurobiologist Qiufu Ma joined Westlake as a full-time chair professor of neurobiology and director of the Physiology and Bioelectronic Medicine Research Center.

Respiration, pulse, body temperature and blood pressure can all be accurately quantified by instruments, and are tangible evidence of the existence of life. And yet, nothing inspires more respect for the body than pain—a vital sign that cannot be quantified.

To most people, pain is a "black box". Pain can hardly be described or felt by another person. But when the pain hits, we know for sure something goes wrong with the body.

Ma has long been committed to the research of pain pathways. While teaching at the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, he led a team and discovered key transcription factors that control the formation of somatosensory cells, including pain, seminal contributions to the transmission of pain in the spinal cord circuit.

Except for his white hair, Ma is not conspicuous on campus. He is thin and carries a black thermos wherever he goes. He has been in the United States for more than 30 years, but he still prefers tea over coffee.

He happened to be the person who took the biomedical scientists in China by storm a year ago.

In October 2021, Ma’s team, together with Prof. Yanqing Wang of Fudan University and Prof. Xianghong Jing's team with the Institute of Acupuncture and Moxibustion of the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, published a paper in Nature. The paper revealed a class of PROKR2-Cre-labeled dorsal root ganglion (DRG) sensory neurons and discussed how we can predict the anti-inflammatory effect of low-intensity electroacupuncture stimulation in different parts.

The work represents a milestone breakthrough in acupuncture and moxibustion research.

In an article published in Neuron in August 2020, Ma’s team confirmed that when a mouse's hindlimb acupoint "Zusanli" and abdominal acupoint "Tianshu" were stimulated with low-intensity electroacupuncture, it could alleviate the inflammatory factor storm in mice and reduce the mortality rate by about two-thirds. However, different stimulation methods correspond to completely different pathways. Stimulating "Zusanli" activates the vagus nerve-adrenal anti-inflammatory pathway, but stimulating "Tianshu" cannot induce the same corresponding anti-inflammatory pathway.

When the above two papers were published, Ma was teaching in the United States and was a full professor at the Department of Neurobiology of Harvard University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute of Harvard Medical School. He did not foresee that these two papers would attract so much attention in China.

"It is very interesting that after our study came out, international colleagues commented that this was another exploration of bioelectronic medicine, and people with a Chinese cultural background would quickly associate it with traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture," Ma said in an interview with China Science Daily.

As one of the research directions of modern medicine, bioelectronic medicine activates the central or peripheral nervous system through electrical stimulation, and remotely regulates physiological functions through the mediation of specific neural pathways
. To remotely adjust body functions, the underlying mechanisms may overlap somewhat.

"Our study did not involve the meridian system, but it does provide some relatively specific explanations for the acupoints in Chinese medicine at the level of neuroanatomy," said Ma. “Both electroacupuncture stimulation and traditional acupuncture are methods of stimulation.” From the perspective of scientific research, the intensity of electroacupuncture stimulation is easier to quantify, and it is easier to control the activation of specific neural pathways.

Whether it is pain, acupuncture or systems biology, the "black boxes" are stacked one after another in front of Ma. Scientific exploration is sometimes like solving a mystery. Plunging headlong into a "black box" full of unknowns is what makes scientific research fascinating. It is said that that pain is like a sharp knife.

As most people are trying to reduce pain perception, researchers like Ma are exploring the science of pain and more unknown mechanisms.