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Dr. Xin-Yun Lu: Mentor, mom, scientist

September 2013

by Will Sansom

Xin-Yun Lu, M.D., Ph.D.
Xin-Yun Lu, M.D., Ph.D.
"Mentor," "mom," "scientist" and "game-changer" are fitting words to describe Xin-Yun Lu, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology in the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center. As a devoted mom, Dr. Lu attentively raises her children and steers them on a path toward success. Similarly, as a dedicated researcher, Dr. Lu is consistently raising up scientific discoveries that could pave the way to a novel class of medications for depression. One recent discovery even offers a solid clue as to why the risk of depression is doubled in persons with Type 2 diabetes.

Xin-Yun grew up in Northern China, where she attended medical school at Binzhou not far from Beijing. In 1992 after several years of study, she moved to the United States, where in a few years she completed her Ph.D. at Washington State University and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan. Today Dr. Lu is one of the leading women scientists at the Health Science Center. Her novel studies of fat hormones’ role in depression – including the idea that these hormones could treat the disease without the metabolic side effects of current antidepressants – are highly cited by other scientists in journal articles worldwide.

"Fat secretes a lot of hormones, two of which are leptin and adiponectin," Dr. Lu says. "Our team has shed light on their role in mood disorders and their potential as antidepressant agents." In 2006 her lab reported that leptin, which regulates appetite, was decreased in rats that exhibited depression-like behaviors such as anhedonia (reduced pleasure seeking) and learned helplessness. The team’s findings led to more recent discoveries by other scientists that leptin is decreased in a broad spectrum of women with depression.

Another milestone came in 2012 when the lab published its discovery that levels of adiponectin, a circulating hormone that sensitizes the body to insulin, are lower in mice undergoing chronic social stress. When the team injected mice with adiponectin, this effect was reversed. This offers an intriguing connection between diabetes and depression. Current antidepressants raise the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes and do not help all depressed patients.

Dr. Lu is raising two daughters, Wendy, now 17, and Jenny, 11, with her husband, Wei Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., a third-year pathology resident in the School of Medicine. And even while overseeing a lab that includes four postdoctoral fellows, one Ph.D. student and one junior faculty member, Dr. Lu still finds time for her family’s activities. Since 2003 Dr. Lu has supervised at least 10 postdocs. She also has a lab and is a visiting professor at Binzhou Medical University, the institution that birthed her biomedical career.

Nicole Carrier, Ph.D., learned about Dr. Lu’s research while at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Carrier is interested in why females are 2.5-times more prone than men to develop depression. "I came here to study gender differences in how leptin affects depression," Dr. Carrier said. "This was the only lab in the country doing this. The novelty is that this lab pioneered the whole idea of leptin in depression."

Jing Liu, Ph.D., instructor/research, said: "I joined Dr. Lu’s lab in 2006 and since then Dr. Lu has been a great mentor for me and a role model of a successful woman scientist. Her research has opened a whole new aspect of understanding mood and emotion regulation by hormones derived from adipocyte (fat). As a brilliant scientist, Dr. Lu’s enthusiasm and complete devotion to scientific research, together with her great wealth of knowledge, inspires and supports everyone in her group. As a respected mentor, she strongly encourages the development of both analytical and grant-obtaining skills, the two critical abilities for future scientific career development. It is exactly the fusion of her passion, charisma, intelligence and the exemplary style of her mentorship that makes me very confident about my future scientific career."

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