Faculty Feature: Xunjun Xiao, PhD

Xunjun Xiao, PhD. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Gastroenterology

Xiao grew up in a rural village in Hubei province located in the central region of China. When he was a child, he enjoyed helping his family with crops and livestock on their small farm. Often times, he was disheartened by the unfavorable outcome due to a variety of reasons. The infection of young cotton plants by certain mysterious disease (most likely Fusarium wilt), which caused severe damage to only cotton plants but not any other crops struck him the most. Therefore, he often dreamed about becoming a scientist with better knowledge and solutions to help families like his. Ironically, his grades were so bad during his elementary school years that he was told to have to repeat one grade. He went back home to whine about the unfair treatment, as he thought that a couple of students with poorer grades were allowed to move up to the next grade. Eventually, he rejoined his class after the persevering efforts from his parents. On the positive side, such a humiliating experience sparked his internal self-motivation. With this newly found self-motivation, he went on to become a handful of people from his village who had been admitted into college during the past several decades.

Xiao attended China Agricultural University in Beijing, the best college in the field of Agriculture in China. He obtained both his BS and MS in Animal Nutrition. He studied the dietary manipulation of microbes in gastrointestinal track to alleviate the occurrence of ruminal acidosis in cattle and sheep. While attending college in Beijing, his perspective on life was dramatically brighten. Firstly, he was lucky to meet and later marry his lovely wife, Xiaomei. Secondly, towards the end of his MS program, he decided to pursue his PhD degree in the US. His original plan was to return to China to seek a college faculty position after rigorous training abroad. In August of 2001, he came to Virginia Tech alone to start his PhD program on a Pratt Fellowship. For his dissertation, he studied the regulation of intestinal nutrient transporters and brushborder membrane hydrolyses in neonatal piglets, with the aim to maximize the genetic potential for growth and production of these animals through optimized feed formulation. The findings from this project have significant application in humans as well. For instance, the late onset of intestinal expression of GLUT5, a transporter specialized in absorption of fructose, offers the perfect interpretation for the recommendation of no fruit juice for young infants. In November of 2002, his wife joined him in Blacksburg after finishing her own MS program in Beijing. Later in 2003, the surprise birth of his twin daughters Annie and Angela brought plenty of joy to the family but derailed Xiao’s original plan for good.

After completing his PhD program in 2005, Xiao joined Dr. Mark Lowe’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center. Under the great mentorship of Dr. Lowe, he had been thriving in research and published several seminal papers: 1) a common polymorphism in pancreatic lipase related protein 2 may be responsible for severe fat maldigestion and malabsorption in affected young children; 2) a pancreatic lipase has been identified as an potential candidate lipase for enzyme supplementation therapy purpose; 3) a toxic gain of function caused by certain misfolded mutant pancreatic lipases can contribute to the development of chronic pancreatic diseases such as chronic pancreatitis and diabetes. In April of 2017, Xiao joined the Department of Pediatrics as Research Assistant Professor. He is interested in further investigating the molecular mechanisms of dietary fat digestion by pancreatic lipases in young children to improve fat digestion for better growth, development and health through proper nutritional support. Additionally, he is interested in utilizing genetic variants in pancreatic lipases as a model to define the role of proteotoxicity caused by misfolded mutant lipases in the pathophysiology of chronic pancreatitis and as tools to identify potential novel therapies to treat chronic pancreatitis. He is excited about the opportunity to work with the brightest researchers within the department and across the medical campus. His ultimate goal is to secure steady extramural funding to become an independent researcher.

In his free time, Xiao loves to help coach his daughters playing a variety of sports at rec level. He also enjoys walking their dog Mister around their neighborhood and falls in love with long distance running. His whole family are big sports fans, and they root for the Pittsburgh sports teams, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were so mad that Steelers lost to Patriots due to an overturned touchdown, but they have faith that Steelers will get their 7th Lombardi Trophy this season. Hopefully, his family will come around and cheer for the Cardinals and Blues in the near future. His daughters are currently freshmen at Clayton High school, and they have adjusted well to their new school.

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