The Cao Lab at the University of Washington is a dynamic and interdisciplinary research group that focuses on two exciting and innovative research directions: mucosal immunoengineering and microbiome pharmaceutics. We aim to develop novel preventive and therapeutic strategies that can enhance our capacity to combat a range of infectious, allergic, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases, and to address global health challenges. Our team is committed to advancing the field through cutting-edge research and collaboration with partners in academia, industry, and beyond.

Mucosal Immunoengineering

Mucosal immunoengineering is a rapidly growing field that concentrates on modulating the immune system at mucosal surfaces, which play a crucial role in immune defense and regulation. The Cao Lab's research in mucosal immunoengineering focuses on creating innovative biomaterials and drug delivery platforms for the precise delivery of immune modulators to mucosal tissues. By leveraging nanotechnology and immunoengineering approaches, our aim is to enhance the immune response to vaccines, prevent and treat infectious diseases, and alleviate chronic allergic or inflammatory conditions. 

One of our key research area is the use of mucosal engineering tools for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, such as HIV. Mucosal sites, such as the lining of the respiratory, gut, and reproductive tracts, are the primary sites of entry for many pathogens. We aims to develop novel drug delivery systems that can specifically target these mucosal sites or engineer the mucosal environment to inhibit the invasion of pathogens or eliminate viral reservoirs. 

The immune system can also overreact at mucosal surfaces, leading to conditions such as chronic inflammatory disease, including inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. Managing these chronic diseases remains challenging. Our goal is to apply immunoengineering strategies to achieve targeted and sustained delivery of novel immunomodulatory agents to the mucosal site, to restore normal immune function and reduce inflammation with better efficacy and fewer side effects. 

Microbiome Pharmaceutics

The gut microbiome has emerged as a promising source of new therapies for a variety of diseases. It is known to play a critical role in the development and regulation of the immune system, and dysregulation of the microbiome has been linked to a wide range of disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, and autoimmune diseases.

In the Cao Lab, we are interested in developing therapies that can modulate the immune system by targeting the microbiome and its associated metabolites. One of our approaches involves utilizing the therapeutic potentials of certain metabolites produced by commensal bacteria, such as short chain fatty acid (SCFAs), and designing polymeric drug delivery platform to target different sites of the body to inhibit inflammation in a controlled manner. We also investigate strategies to modulate the microbiome community for more significant positive impacts on human health.

There is a growing interest in investigating the communication pathways between the gut and other organs, including the gut-lung and gut-brain axes. Understanding the mechanisms underlying these pathways is essential for the development of effective microbiome-based therapeutics for treating diseases such as respiratory inflammation, neurological disorders, and autoimmune diseases. We aim to leverage the drug delivery tools and microbiome modulation strategies to expand our understanding of the complex interplay between the microbiome and various organ systems. This research will enable the development of innovative therapies that can harness the power of the microbiome to improve human health.