USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

USC dental school welcomes Pinghui Feng to faculty

Pinghui feng portrait in white lab coat

The renowned microbiologist aims to broaden research focus to investigate oral diseases such as dental caries and periodontitis.

BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14

Pinghui Feng first became interested in researching disease after helplessly watching those he loved struggle with their own health issues. 

His mother was born with a right ankle disability that left her unable to walk normally throughout her life. His father suffered from a chronic bacterial eye infection that lasted for decades. 

“It is painful to see your loved ones suffer from a disease on a daily basis,” said Feng, who joined the Ostrow faculty early this month as a professor of dentistry. “When we can figure out what happened or caused it, we can find a way to fix it.”

It was this desire to help others lead healthier lives that led Feng to pursue a research career in molecular microbiology and immunology. 

Into the world of microbes

Feng’s educational journey began back in his native China, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and his master’s degree in microbiology. 

In 2001, he finished his doctorate in cell biology and biophysics from the University of Missouri, before going on to pursue post-graduate training at Harvard Medical School in tumor virology, molecular microbiology and genetics.

Feng’s research is focused on the complex interactions between oral microbes (bacteria, viruses and fungi) and a person’s immune system — both during periods of health as well as during infection. He has largely focused this research on a certain type of herpesvirus that can cause cancers in immunocompromised individuals.

Related: Study finds herpesvirus evades a body’s immune system

This scientific investigation has earned Feng a number of awards, most notably the R35 Award for Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

Feng has served on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and most recently the Keck School of Medicine of USC, where he began in 2011. 

Related: Small investment in a USC researcher pays off in a big way

Expanding his research focus

Aiming to broaden his research focus, Feng left Keck to join the Ostrow research community in early August.

At Ostrow, he will lead the new Section of Infection and Immunity, which will extend Feng’s research focus on the complex interactions between oral microbes and a person’s immune system to investigate oral diseases like dental caries and periodontitis.

“The Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC has a rich history of research in oral infections that include periodontal disease as well as developmental disorders,” Feng said. “We aim to provide mechanistic insight into how multiple microbes interact with each other. Our long-term goal is to develop a therapeutic modality that can treat and prevent oral diseases.” 

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