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Thread: stem cell work in China

  1. #1
    Senior Member giambjj's Avatar
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    stem cell work in China

    An embryonic nation


    Xiangzhong Yang is the director of the Center for Regenerative Biology, University of Connecticut Storrs, Connecticut 06269-4243, USA.

    Liberal views on human-embryo technology make China ideal to become a world leader in this field. Xiangzhong Yang explores its potential.

    As China pours money into regenerative medicine, its scientists are starting to explore the field's technical and ethical frontiers1. Therapeutic cloning, stem-cell studies and other research areas that use animal or human embryos are controversial and raise religious and ethical questions, as well as concerns over animal welfare.

    As a result, many Western governments are wary of such research. These issues have led to unsupportive policies for cloning-related research, and the high cost of clinical trials for any proteins developed using this technology have forced many scientists and commercial companies to abandon promising research and to lose out on potentially profitable products2.

    China has a cultural environment with fewer moral objections to the use of embryonic stem cells than many Western countries, and, if it can provide a supportive funding and academic environment, it could take a leading role in this field. These technologies offer unprecedented research and commercialization opportunities for China.

    Public approval
    The success of cloning using nuclear transfer (the same technique used to produce the first cloned animal - Dolly the sheep)3 shows that the nucleus of a differentiated cell, for example a skin cell, from an adult, can be reprogrammed and converted back to an embryo-like cell that can give rise to all cell types and tissues. This technology is a significant improvement on transgenic-animal production, and offers a fresh approach to agriculture through the cloning of élite bulls or racehorses, as well as to the cloning of endangered species such as pandas and to the creation of animal models of human disease for basic medical research.

    China is firmly opposed to reproductive human cloning4. But human therapeutic cloning (which is when a patient's own cells are used to form stem cells that grow into tissues needed by the patient) is legally permitted, unlike the current situation in many other countries, particularly the United States and Germany. China has probably the most liberal environment for embryo research in the world: most Chinese media report positively on achievements in transgenics, therapeutic cloning and related embryo-based research. Furthermore, the public shows little opposition to such studies.

    This liberal environment and acceptance of these biotechnologies stems from governmental and public recognition of the significance of this work. In addition, the relatively easy access to human material, including embryonic and fetal tissues, in China is a huge advantage for researchers.

    Human therapeutic cloning and animal-based embryo biotechnology research should be a top research priority if China wants to focus on scientific areas with the potential to make her a world leader in a short period of time.


    Huizhen Sheng is internationally respected for her stem-cell research.
    Chinese scientists have already produced transgenic rabbits, goats and cows within a few years of the technology becoming available. Likewise, China has succeeded in cloning goats and cattle and most recently was part of the first team in the world to successfully clone a rat5, which is one of the most difficult species to clone. Other high-profile results have come from Huizhen Sheng's team at Shanghai Second Medical University, which extracted stem cells from embryos by fusing adult human cells with specially prepared rabbit eggs6. And Guangxiu Lu's team at Xiangya Medical College in Changsha has cloned human embryos7 to multicellular blastocyst stage. This and recent progress in successfully extracting embryonic stem cells8 represent significant progress towards human therapeutic cloning.

    China has established a good base for human-embryo research, but this field is still in its infancy and far from sufficient to prepare a country to play a leading role in the world. It remains to be seen whether China can build on her strength in the promising area of human therapeutic cloning research to become a world leader.

    For instance, China acquired the necessary technologies to produce transgenic animals and pharmaceutical proteins decades ago, but has shown no signs of production, let alone commercialization, of such proteins. Meanwhile, Western companies have entered into various phases of drug development and clinical trials in the past decade, even though in China the drug-approval phase is much shorter (five years rather than roughly 15 years in the United States).

    Various factors may contribute to this lack of drug development, but China needs to improve the following: funding for basic research, the efficiency of the technology-transfer system, the return rate of talented individuals from developed countries, and the number and quality of national and international collaborations.

    The Chinese government falls far behind more developed countries in commitment to research and development. China only spent US$12.5 billion (1.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP)) in 2001 (ref. 9). In contrast, the percentage of the GDP allocated in Japan, the United States and South Korea for research and development is 3.0, 2.8 and 2.7, respectively10 (see the table on the right). In 2003, the US National Institutes of Health alone has a budget of US$27 billion11, more than double the total that China now spends on research and development. Sufficient and sustained investment is a fundamental reason that the United States leads the world in science and technology. In this respect, China is still a 'developing' country.

    As well as generally increasing investment, the Chinese government needs to target research areas with the potential to compete successfully in the international arena. This will help China to attract many of its overseas researchers back. Many Western-trained young scientists in the embryo biotechnology field are returning to China, and they bring with them not only up-to-date expertise and technology, but also the Western mentality for teamwork and collaborative research. Now is the time for China to join the international competition for talent and to recruit and retain world-class scientists.

    China does not have the resources to be competitive internationally in all fields of science and technology overnight. Its strategy of investing heavily in a few selected centres, as it did with the human and animal genome projects, should be applied to human-embryo research and related biotechnologies.

    This approach is already being pursued elsewhere. In Australia, the government is providing US$26.3 million to establish a Centre for Stem Cells and Tissue Repair at Monash University in Victoria. Even in the United States, where the federal government discourages this type of research, the University of California, San Francisco, announced a $5-million developmental and stem-cell biology programme in 2002. In December of the same year, Stanford University revealed plans for an Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine and committed $12 million in seed money12. On the east coast, the University of Connecticut launched a Center for Regenerative Biology in 2002 with an investment of $10.5 million to build the centre's labs plus additional support to recruit five new professors with complementary expertise to the existing strong embryo biotechnology programme. I had the privilege to be the founding director of this new centre.

    Working together
    Whether or not China makes a clinical success of therapeutic cloning and other stem-cell therapies depends upon many factors. The gap between embryo research in China and other countries is not great at present. But, bringing these technologies through clinical trials and into the market will require expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, from molecular, cellular and developmental biology, to immunology and genetics, transplantation biology and clinical medicine. The relatively undeveloped level of China's research base could pose major challenges at this stage. Cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with their solid foundation in basic science, should be considered as preferable locations to recruit national and international talents to establish research clusters and centres. These centres would consist of researchers with different expertise working together.


    Researcher at work in a cloning and stem-cell laboratory in Beijing.
    Another problem is the lack of collaborations both within and outside China. It is not uncommon in China for one university to have several similar labs studying the same area but with no collaborations between them; sometimes even unethical and unfair competition exists. In today's globalized world, no research should be done in isolation.

    China has taken big steps to improve its national and international links, but there is still a long way to go, particularly when we look at pioneering research such as therapeutic cloning. Interactions such as collaborative research, conferences and joint publications between centres and other research laboratories should be encouraged by the government through funding and promotion incentives. These research centres in turn will attract more scientists to China.

    An attractive proposition
    Collaborations with China are becoming very attractive to researchers based in the West. While Western researchers focus on animal models, partners at the new Chinese stem-cell research centres could focus on human models. Furthermore, this will provide an opportunity for China to attract top scientists from around the world to work in China, full- or part-time, although salaries comparable to those in Western countries may need to be offered.

    The world is beginning to take note of the Chinese researchers who are accomplishing excellent work. But we must realize that questions still remain in the minds of many Western researchers as to whether China has the ability to conduct world-class research. This is the result of long-standing inadequate communication and collaboration between Chinese scientists and those from the Western world.

    'Opening the door', communicating with foreign scientists, working together and jointly designing experiments, protocols and joint ownership of collaborative research data, patents and publications are principles and attitudes that many Chinese scientists still need to learn. Only by adopting and embracing such principles will the rest of the world get to know the best science and the first-rate scientists in China. I hope that these collaborative efforts will build a bridge of trust between this old Asian country and the West.

    To conclude, I would like to emphasize the significance of governmental involvement, supervision and regulation of human therapeutic cloning and research on embryo biotechnologies. These techniques may involve human embryos, which reminds us that there are dangers as well as benefits: abuse of these technologies can result in insurmountable problems for future research that no country in the world wants to face. Research must be encouraged and supported, but clear guidelines are necessary for all researchers. A national ethics committee should be established to evaluate, approve, review and supervise therapeutic cloning and other embryo-based studies.

    In Japan, any such study needs to be approved at the institute level by an internal review board and by a central committee established by the government. This might provide a model for China to follow. Currently, the Ministry of Health is the regulating agency for human embryo and transgenic therapeutic research in China. But regulations are often not followed, and some very sensitive embryo-based studies are conducted with little or no institutional review, and researchers suffer no consequences for not following institutional or national regulations or guidelines, if they exist.

    The government should create a national committee consisting of selected international experts in related fields to enforce these regulations. At the same time, local institutes should also set up their own ethics advisory/approval panels and be responsible for any violations. The national committee should also take responsibility for providing training for scientists and administrators on the current policies and protocols. This basic infrastructure should guide the emerging stem-cell therapies through clinical trials, and avoiding a rush into the clinic or even to the market before the basic science has been completed.

    I expect to see research into stem cells increase in China. I would not be surprised if in five to ten years China becomes one of the leading nations in the world in the fields of therapeutic cloning and related research. But for that to happen, the Chinese government must provide strong support through policy, funding, talent recruitment and a determined commitment to promote productive scientific as well as business collaborations.

    1. Dennis, C. Nature 419, 334-336 (2002). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
    2. Zeng, Y. World Science and Technology Research and Development (in Chinese) 5, 1-4 (1999).
    3. Wilmut, I. et al. Nature 385, 810-813 (1997). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
    4. Ministry of Health, China. Regulations on Assistant Reproduction Technologies and Sperm Bank. (2003).
    5. Zhou, Q. et al. Science 302, 1179 (2003). | PubMed | ChemPort |
    6. Chen, Y. et al. Cell. Res. 13, 251-263 (2003). | PubMed | ISI |
    7. Lu, C. et al. Chinese Sci. Bull. 48, 1840-1843 (2003). | Article | ISI |
    8. Hwang, W. S. et al. Science (2004). | PubMed |
    9. (2001).
    10. OECD (2002).
    11. Office of Science and Technology Policy, USA. (2003).
    12. Gershon, D. Nature 422, 928-929 (2003). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |

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  2. #2
    Senior Member poonsuzanne's Avatar
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    Originally posted by Dr. J. J.:

    An embryonic nation

    Liberal views on human-embryo technology make China ideal to become a world leader in this field. Xiangzhong Yang explores its potential.

    I expect to see research into stem cells increase in China. I would not be surprised if in five to ten years China becomes one of the leading nations in the world in the fields of therapeutic cloning and related research. But for that to happen, the Chinese government must provide strong support through policy, funding, talent recruitment and a determined commitment to promote productive scientific as well as business collaborations.

    © 2004 Nature Publishing Group
    Privacy Policy
    Dr. J.J.,

    Thank you so much for posting this article!

    Recently, I've been desperately trying to find out the present situation of stem cell research in China. Dr. Xiangzhong Yang has said everything on my mind but I just didn't know how to express them in words.

    I have set up a meeting in late March in Beijing among our Vice Minister of Health, Dr. Wise Young, Dr. Hongyun Huang, Dr. Paul Tam of HKU to discuss the prospect of stem cell research in China. I sincerely hope that some fine collaborative efforts can be built between China and the US in the not too distant future.

    If I could, I want to meet our Minister of Health, our Prime Minister on this issue as well!!! I wish to see China set the goal for humans to walk on the Moon or Mars the same as vital for all humans to walk on earth.


    [This message was edited by Suzanne Poon on 03-12-04 at 09:10 AM.]

  3. #3
    Member urbanan's Avatar
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    Jan 2002

    Whoever you are.Thank you so much for pushing,and keeping up the preassure on sci issues.When i read your post i became embarresed at myself for not doing my best in search for a cure. Make the right people meet each other seems to be a good start for global cooperation. I am not a dr. or scientist, but there are many roads to walk.Writing letters to people in charge is one of them, i think i start today. Thanx

  4. #4
    Senior Member poonsuzanne's Avatar
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    Hong Kong, China

    Thank you for the kindest words.

    I would like to share my letter to our Vice Minister of Health with you. (Some of the information and data contained may not be correct.)


    A Pleading letter to the Vice Minister of Health of China

    Re: Promoting Stem Cell Research in China

    Dear Dr.Huang,

    How are you? It was a great honor to meet you in your office in November, 2002.

    First of all, I would like to thank you for the efforts and time in arranging Poon Hai to be admitted to XuanWu Hospital in December, 2002. He has benefited a lot from the good experience of his stay there.

    As you may remember, Poon Hai has become a paraplegic as a result of a spinal cord injury at T12 two years ago on 22nd March, 2002. Unfortunately, he is still now confined to his wheelchair with no sensation and motor functions from the waist down. On the positive side, with the tremendous support and encouragement of all including your valuable advice, Poon Hai is now back to school to finish all his grade 12 requirements and will enroll in university this coming September.

    Since his injury, we have tried everything we can to change this cruel reality. However, at the present moment, I realize and am very sure that he will only stand up and walk again depending totally on the advances to be made in medical science. In this respect, our merest hope tends to fall on all types of stem cell research.

    Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce Dr. Wise Young to you and hope that a meeting with you can be set up between 19th and 23rd of March to discuss stem cell research programs in China, which will benefit millions of patients in China as well as worldwide.

    Dr. Young has been the most passionate and devoted scientist and researcher in developing a cure for spinal cord injury (SCI) in the last 25 years. As such, in 2001, Dr. Young was selected as one of the 18 best scientists in the US by Time Magazine. Among them, the other Chinese was Dr. David Ho, a physician and world-renowned AIDS researcher. Apart from that, Dr. Young was part of the team that discovered and established high-dose methylprednisolone (MP) as the first effective therapy for spinal cord injuries (when it is administered within first 8 hours of the injury, 10-20% of nerve function could be retained). This 1990 work upended concepts that spinal cord injuries were permanent, refocused research, and opened new vistas of hope. (A biography of Dr. Young is attached herewith.)

    There is another important person I would like to mention here, Dr. Hongyun Huang, who is also a very determined and devoted doctor to find a cure for SCI. He is now stationed at Chao Yang Hospital in Beijing. Dr. Huang acquired the Olfactory Ensheathing Glia (OEG) Transplant therapy skill for SCI three years ago from Dr. Young's lab at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Since then he has successfully transplanted OEG to over 400 patients in Beijing with a zero mortality rate, whereas, the degree of partial recovery is mainly restricted to 5% - 15%. However, Dr. Wise Young is aiming at developing the third generation of therapy which combines OEG to stem cells and to other cells or a cocktail together with a tight schedule of rehabilitation program.

    As you are aware, recently, two greatest scientists in Korea have successfully cloned a human embryo for therapeutic research purposes only. They said that they will only try therapeutic cloning to cure incurable human diseases like Parkinson's and Spinal Cord Injury. They have also mentioned that if Korea were to prohibit therapeutic cloning research, they would have to go to other countries where it is permitted - Singapore, Mainland China, and may be Britain.

    Inspired by these forceful remarks, I strongly feel that our great country of China has a lot of potential to lead the world in stem cell research.

    On the other hand, due to religious and ethical concerns surrounding stem cell research, President Bush in 2001 ordered the National Institutes of Health not to provide any funds for research on human embryonic cells except those colonies, or "lines"already cultivated at research centers. Despite all these, both California and New Jersey have already passed the legislation by supporting and funding stem cell research.

    On 16th October, 2003, China has spectacularly overcome all difficulties and efficiently and flawlessly sent astronauts to space, which serves as a sound remarkable accomplishment demonstrated in front of the whole world. In this regard, China can become the first nation for all people to walk on Earth even though we are not the first nation to walk on the Moon. By the time we have achieved this, thousands of millions of dollars will have been saved on the care services for numerous disabled patients each year and, most importantly, have allowed them to go back to being full time contributors to the work force. Furthermore, a legacy will be left behind for all our descendants and the whole world to cherish.

    You are our most respectable Vice Minister of Health, it would be an extremely great honor for us to meet you to discuss further this matter of how to enhance different categories of stem cell research and to push them forward to clinical trials at an unprecedented speed. In this respect, I wonder if you would have one hour to spare to grant us a meeting. If you require further information on Dr. Young's work on spinal cord injury, I will be most delighted to forward to you at once!

    As a desperate mother, I will contact your secretary in the next couple of days to check if you are available for the meeting. I can also be reached by email or by phone at Mobile no. (852) xxxxx or Home no. (852) xxxxx.

    Your attention in this matter is highly appreciated!

    With best regards,
    Suzanne Poon
    25th February, 2004


  5. #5

    Nice job! Very well done. Your letter was heartfelt and to the point.


  6. #6
    Senior Member Rollin Rick's Avatar
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    Nov 2002
    B ville, New York, USA
    Suzanne, that was excellent, you sure do have a way with words. Well done.

    What one man can do another can do

  7. #7
    Great job Suzanne!

    God bless you and your son.

  8. #8
    Senior Member Schmeky's Avatar
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    Sep 2002
    West Monroe, LA, USA
    Dang Suzanne,

    I'm impressed. . . . .you got a sister??

  9. #9
    Member THP's Avatar
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    Jul 2003
    Grapevine, Tx USA
    Am I missing something??

    I'm not sure I understand why we're wasting our time fighting US bureacracy. Lets find a country, get behind their scientists and doctors and support them 100% in every way we can.

    Apparently, trying to get through to our "logic challenged" leaders is never going to happen.


  10. #10
    Sounds good, lets put our money on China. Suzanne, is there anything us CareCure people can do to express our concerns to China as well. Maybe some folks here could contact the Vice Minister of Health in China too.

    David ~

    "Many candles can light up a great city."

    [This message was edited by david65 on 03-12-04 at 04:06 PM.]

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