As China's biomedical programs rapidly expand, scientists returning from overseas maintain their ties
Lina Zhang, MD, was a PhD student in the lab of Kexin Chen, MD, PhD, at Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital when she had the opportunity to advance her research skills in the United States. “My greatest achievement is that I learned more about how to think and communicate with others in scientific research,” she says.
After working for a year in the lab of Wei Zhang, PhD, at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, last May she returned to China to defend her thesis and complete a study on a gene associated with breast cancer that was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An oncology surgeon specializing in breast cancer—a disease on the rise in China—she collaborates with Chen and her American colleagues on a genome-wide association study of breast cancer.
More and more of the Chinese researchers who have sought training in the United States are following a path like Zhang's: they return to China while continuing to maintain research ties in America.
This sea change has been brought about by an extraordinary boost in funding and resources in China. Between 2005 and 2010, federal spending on science and technology rose an average of 22% per year. China launched the Thousand Talents program in 2008 to lure prominent Chinese-born scientists back to their native country. Last year, the National Science Foundation ranked China second behind the United States in the number of published, peer-reviewed articles in the biomedical sciences.
Although studying in the United States is as popular as ever, the younger generation is increasingly opting to return after their sojourns. “Ten years ago, only a very few people returned,” says Chenguang Wang, PhD, a cancer biologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. “Now every year there are hundreds.” A decade ago very few American researchers had ever been to China; now he notices that few senior scientists haven't paid at least one visit there.
Wang, who first came to the United States 13 years ago, maintains close ties in his native country. He has an adjunct faculty position at Shandong University in Jijan and is involved in collaborative scientific projects in China.
Pooling Research Resources
Just as movement between China and the United States is no longer a one-way street, research collaborations are increasingly balanced. “More and more, there is a growing interest for bidirectional exchanges,” says Julie Schneider, PhD, program director of the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) Office of China Cancer Programs, which was created 2 years ago.
The NCI, Schneider says, has a long history of collaborations in China, but the changing scientific landscape is creating new opportunities. “Because of the rapid increase in funding available, there are growing opportunities for those U.S.-trained scientists to return to China,” she says. “Fortunately for NCI, there's often a strong interest in maintaining collaborations.” Some talented researchers even manage to lead laboratories in both countries.
The sheer size of China's patient population is extremely valuable, and its patterns of cancer prevalence differ from those in the United States, offering unique data sets for studies on cancer epidemiology and genetics, as well as clinical research. At the same time, the growth of China's economy has created a burden of cancer in urban areas that more closely matches the West, creating new opportunities for research exchanges that benefit both countries.
M.D. Anderson's Wei Zhang says that pooling resources can help scientists conduct comparative studies and validate findings in different populations. For instance, M.D. Anderson has an ongoing partnership with Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, which has developed a joint tissue bank that holds China's largest collection of recently acquired tumor samples. China is also quickly expanding its resources in stem cell research, genomics, and nanotechnology, he says.
Zhang is president of the U.S.–Chinese Anti-Cancer Association, an organization that facilitates collaborations between cancer researchers and physicians, and gives awards to young investigators from China who make contributions in both countries. He has also helped transform the Chinese Journal of Cancer into an international journal.
Similarly, Xiao-Fan Wang, PhD, of Duke University Medical Center serves in an advisory role in China, advocating reforms in grant-review processes and promoting the teaching of biomedical ethics in Chinese schools. Wang hopes that China's increased research capacity will eventually boost medical education and translational research, so that the country can better serve its patients by developing its own vaccines and other therapies.
These trends would further benefit physicians such as Lina Zhang, now taking advantage of new opportunities in her home country and her international connections to carry out research that she hopes will someday benefit the 2,000 breast cancer patients her hospital treats every year.