She changed the family business for science

In the documentary Chiñoles y bananas, journalist Susana Ye, a self-described “alicanchina”, showed the lives of a handful of chiñoles, the grown-up children of the first Chinese to arrive in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s. They joked that they were bananas, because this fruit is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. The scientist Lucía Zhu, born in Valencia in 1993, is one of these chiñoles and bananas. She is more Spanish than paella, although her family comes from Wenzhou, a city of three million inhabitants in southeast China. And, now, she is dedicated to the search for new cancer treatments at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO) in Madrid.

Zhu’s biography resembles that of other Chiñolese. His parents opened a Chinese restaurant in Valencia and immediately sent their baby back to Wenzhou. “In the Chinese community in the West, as they are very dedicated to work, it is quite common to send their children to China, to their grandparents, because they don’t have time to raise them,” Zhu explained to EL PAÍS on Monday. Two years later, the girl returned to her parents, who ended up opening a supermarket in Malaga, the city that has marked her accent. “When I was a teenager I did help in my parents’ store. It’s not the typical bazaar, but we sell Asian food: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, quite varied,” she says.

Very early on she traded the family business for science. “My parents and grandparents say that I have always been very curious about everything, asking why things happen,” she explains. Zhu went to Seville to study biotechnology at the Pablo de Olavide University. And her grades were brilliant: 9.4 out of 10. She received a scholarship from Banco Santander to study for a semester in South Carolina (USA). She then received a scholarship from the Ramón Areces Foundation, linked to El Corte Inglés, to study a master’s degree in Molecular Biomedicine at the Autonomous University of Madrid. And now she enjoys a scholarship from Obra Social La Caixa to pursue her doctoral studies at the CNIO, one of the best cancer research centers in Europe.

Zhu speaks Spanish, English, Mandarin, the Wenzhou dialect, the almost forgotten Valencian she used to speak as a child and the German she learned during her Erasmus studies at the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Hamburg. At the age of 25, she is doing research in the Brain Metastasis Group at the CNIO, directed by the veterinarian Manuel Valiente from Zaragoza. His doctoral thesis project consists of developing a platform -named METPlatform- to identify new drugs against this type of cancer.

Right now, Zhu has dozens of immunosuppressed mice that she injects with human brain metastasis cells from primary lung, breast or melanoma tumors. When the tumor spreads, the biotechnologist euthanizes the animals and cuts each of their brains into about 50 slices, with the aim of testing a multitude of drugs on them to see whether or not they work. In addition to rodent tissue, Zhu also uses fresh human metastases taken from surgeries to confirm the antitumor activity of the molecules. “We have come up with a lot of promising drugs, and I have focused more on two of them, because they may be quite interesting for studying the biology of brain metastasis. Not only do we want to identify new drugs, but we want to know why they work,” he says.

Brain metastases affect between 10% and 30% of people with cancer. Lung and breast tumors are the most frequent causes of brain metastasis. When cancer cells spread from their original site and manage to penetrate the brain and colonize it, the prognosis is always poor or very poor. This is why patients with brain metastases have historically been excluded from clinical trials of new therapies. Manuel Valiente’s young group believes that METPlatform will help build confidence to test more experimental drugs in patients and help them live longer and better lives.

Zhu is at the forefront of this scientific war. “When I was a child, I didn’t realize so much, but now I am aware that knowing two cultures, knowing Chinese, speaking several languages, opens a lot of doors for me professionally. And I can always see things from different perspectives, which is something that can also be applied many times to other areas of life,” she says. “The truth is that I have been quite fortunate.” Visit our website HERE