Lina Cui, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the department of medicinal chemistry in the University of Florida College of Pharmacy and a member of the Cancer Center’s Cancer Therapeutics & Host Response research program. She obtained her B.Sc. in chemistry from Nankai University (China) in 2003. She continued her studies at the University of Alberta in Canada and obtained her Ph.D. in organic chemistry and glycobiology in 2009 under the direction of David R. Bundle, Ph.D., founding director of the Alberta Glycomics Centre. After graduate school, Dr. Cui spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow with Jean M.J. Fréchet, Ph.D., at UC Berkeley. Her postdoctoral training continued at Stanford University School of Medicine (2011-2014), where she worked with Jianghong Rao, Ph.D., in the Molecular Imaging Program at Stanford directed by professor Sanjiv Sam Gambhir.

lina cui
Lina Cui, Ph.D.

In 2015, Dr. Cui joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of New Mexico and UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center. In August 2018, she was recruited to the University of Florida and was appointed as a tenure-track assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy. In 2022, she was promoted with tenure to associate professor.

The Cui lab explores the biochemical activities of glycan processing enzymes and develops therapeutic and diagnostic molecules or tools for various types of diseases including cancer, diabetes and other age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The interdisciplinary program integrates organic/medicinal chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, AI-directed drug discovery and translational research.

What are your current research interests and/or what is a project you are currently working on?

We have two main research directions:

  • The extracellular matrix, or ECM, is an essential component of the microenvironment of cells and is known to provide mechanical supports for organs and tissues, as well as loci for cell adhesion, interaction and signaling to regulate various cell functions. Heparan sulfate proteoglycans, major components in the ECM of all tissue types, maintain structural integrity of the ECM and regulate cellular signaling via binding with ECM components and protein ligands such as growth factors and chemokines. Heparanase, the only known enzyme that can cleave the heparan sulfate, or HS, side chains of HSPGs and a key enzyme for ECM remodeling, regulates many cellular processes including ECM remodeling and homeostasis of cell-associated HS, and it controls the bioavailability and activity of molecules attached to HS. The functions of heparanase in various conditions involving ECM remodeling remain to be revealed. Our overall research program has been built on the development of novel heparanase probes with defined structures to probe the role of heparanase in various pathological processes including cancer, inflammation and diabetes. In parallel, we have been inventing efficient diagnostic molecules and tools for various diseases via targeting heparanase and related enzymes. Coupling the wet-lab effort with artificial intelligence, we have been discovering and developing novel inhibitors for heparanase.
  • Cellular senescence, a non-proliferative but viable cellular state with prolonged and mostly irreversible cell-cycle arrest, not only acts as an endogenous tumor suppression mechanism, it is also a cellular response to various stresses, including therapy (therapy-induced senescence), telomere shortening (replicative senescence) and activation of oncogenes (oncogene-induced senescence). Mounting evidence has linked cellular senescence with aging and numerous age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and fibrosis at various vital organs. Therapy-induced senescence is somewhat beneficial as it can stop the proliferation of cancer cells and stimulate immune surveillance, but on the flip side, it has been linked to cancer progression and metastasis in recent studies via the pro-tumorigenic senescence-associated secretory phenotype. Our lab has been developing imaging molecules and tools that enable detecting and monitoring of cellular senescence in real time; these probe molecules are invaluable for treatment monitoring and for research in aging and the associated disease.

What do you want to achieve with your work?

Using the novel molecular tools developed in my lab, we expect to provide better understanding of the precise mode heparanase plays during the remodeling of the extracellular matrix and to guide the design of heparanase-targeted diagnostic and therapeutic molecules for various diseases. Our work will also produce specific and efficient tracing molecules for cellular senescence, which will significantly advance the field of cancer and age-related diseases as it is the bottleneck of relevant fields. Combining tracing chemicals and senolytic drugs, we will further the study of the role of senescence in cancer, immunology and age-related disorders. Most importantly the probe molecules are based on noninvasive imaging and the chemistry is translatable to medical imaging modalities, offering promising potential to detect senescence and guide senotherapies in humans.

Why did you decide on your field?

Growing up as a STEM girl, I always loved creating and building things. For me, nothing is more fulfilling and rewarding than creating things as small as molecules to solve problems as big as disease diagnosis and treatment.

“For me, nothing is more fulfilling and rewarding than creating things as small as molecules to solve problems as big as disease diagnosis and treatment.”

Lina Cui, Ph.D.

What do you like to do outside of work?

While not at work, I love spending time with my 6-year-old boy Jasper, who is extremely inquisitive, energetic and inspiring. I also enjoy traveling with my family to visit relatives and friends all over the world.