Five Questions With…
Bin Gao, M.D., Ph.D. Chief, Laboratory of Liver Diseases, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
You are Chief of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Laboratory of Liver Diseases. How would you describe your research to the general public?
The primary goal of our lab is to study the pathogenesis of, and explore therapeutic targets for, alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD). ALD is a major cause of chronic liver disease and can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death. Of the 100,530 liver disease deaths among people ages 12 and older in 2021, 47.4% involved alcohol. Although clinical trials are underway, no medications have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat ALD.
How did you get involved in your current research?
I received my medical training at Wannan Medical College in China, my graduate training in immunology at Norman Bethune Medical University of Medical Sciences (now Jilin University) in China, and my postdoctoral training in liver biology at NIAAA and the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine). During this time, I developed my interest in studying liver immunology and identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying liver inflammation in severe ALD.
What do you consider your lab’s most significant research accomplishments in the last 20 years?
In 2004, we discovered that interleukin-22, a protein produced by immune cells, is a key cytokine for liver cell survival and proliferation. Over the last 10 years, we have extensively studied interleukin-22 biology in the liver and found that interleukin-22 protects against ALD. Our studies led to the ongoing clinical trials evaluating interleukin-22 for the treatment of acute liver failure involved in conditions such as severe alcohol-associated hepatitis (AH), a form of liver disease with a high short-term mortality rate. In addition, a phase IIb clinical trial, which studies the safety and effectiveness of an intervention, has generated promising results for using interleukin-22 for the treatment of severe AH.
We have also established several preclinical mouse models for studying the adverse effects of alcohol on the liver, including the chronic-plus-binge ethanol feeding model, known as the NIAAA model. We also established the high-fat diet-plus-binge ethanol feeding model, and several new models mimicking acute-on-chronic liver failure and acute liver failure in patients. The NIAAA model is now a well-accepted preclinical model to study the pathogenesis of AH and to test potential compounds for the treatment of the disease.
More recently, we characterized liver inflammation in severe AH. We identified two distinct cell profiles of severe AH by examining the immune cell populations observed in patients with the disease. Our data suggest a separate mechanism driving liver injury and/or failure in these patients.
What is the most exciting project you are working on now?
We are currently working on two exciting projects. The first one is to investigate the contribution of organ systems other than the liver—such as gut and fat tissue—to alcohol metabolism and drinking behavior. The second one is to characterize liver inflammation in AH, which will identify the molecular mechanisms that trigger inflammation in severe AH and discover novel therapeutic targets for the treatment of AH.
What do you like to do outside of the office?
I enjoy hiking and traveling. I hike every weekend in Maryland and West Virginia, and often hike Sugarloaf Mountain, the Appalachian Trail, and the Harpers Ferry area, to name a few. I have traveled many times to Europe and Asia, but many traveling destinations are still on the list, including several northern European countries, South American countries, Australia, and New Zealand, among others. I also like to watch soccer games and play the sport.