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Forum strengthens NZ-China non communicable diseases research collaborations

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

An impressive range of joint research projects between Chinese and New Zealand cancer, brain and modernisation of traditional medicine scientists may receive further support from the New Zealand-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC).

Jim Mann image
Professor Jim Mann.

Last week the second China-New Zealand Non-Communicable Diseases Research Cooperation Forum brought researchers together for enthusiastic discussions about existing and potential areas of collaborative research. The e-forum was hosted out of Beijing by the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development and by the Dunedin-based NCD CRCC, with many delegates joining virtually from Beijing, Shanghai, Wellington and other Chinese and New Zealand cities.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) allocated the NCD CRCC $1.6million over three years to support a collaborative research programme that was initiated at the first forum in 2019 in Queenstown, plus $500,000 to maintain the centre’s activities. The forum’s introductory address from China’s Deputy Director General, Department of International Cooperation, Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), Jie Xu, indicated similarly strong support from the Chinese government.

The forum began with a formal opening ceremony with more than 50 attendees including representatives from both MBIE and MoST, plus attendees from the NZ Consulate General in Shanghai, Chinese Embassy in Wellington and Dunedin City Council’s (DCC) Enterprise Dunedin. This year’s focus was on the three priority research areas - brain science, cancer and modernisation of traditional Chinese medicine.

NCD CRCC Director Professor Jim Mann says, “The range and sheer number of possible collaborations discussed over a short space of time was impressive.

“Our first forum in Queenstown in 2019 gathered researchers together for what was very much a ‘getting to know you phase’, finding out the range of NCD and traditional medicines research areas that academics in China and New Zealand could collaborate on. This second forum cements those ties and really gets the ball rolling with active, shared research.”

Brain Research New Zealand Co-Director Professor Cliff Abraham says, “It’s clear that, like our own researchers, the speakers from China are very high performers at an international level – we are dealing with excellence. At the science level, these collaborations are only win-win. Research can go further and faster by harnessing each other’s resources. In New Zealand the resource of people with biomarkers of mental health or neurodegenerative disorders is limited, in China its huge.”

The NCD CRCC has benefitted enormously from the long standing and close sister city relationship between Dunedin and Shanghai over the years.

DCC Enterprise Dunedin Director, John Christie, says the forum and the connections the NCD CRCC have made with China are, “… practical evidence of the value of this partnership. Beyond the usual civic and cultural activities, real work has emerged. It has grown from various formal Memorandums of Understanding that provided initial political approval and backing. Now, as this forum shows, the opportunities have spread from just being between Shanghai and Dunedin, to work with other universities in other cities in both countries.”

The two-day forum concluded with reports from each group where existing collaborative relationships were strengthened and new connections emerged.

Cancer Workshop

NZ Institute for Cancer Research Chair in Cancer Pathology and Otago Dunedin School of Medicine Pathology Professor Michael Eccles, says several existing and potential areas for collaboration were discussed with Chinese researchers, e.g.:

  • Professor Hangping Shi, Beijing Hospital, affiliated to Capital Medical Hospital, who presented information about hunger-free hospitals. Providing cancer patients with good, nutritious menus greatly contributes to therapy and reduces morbidity.
  • Professor Zaiyi Liu, Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital– accurate diagnosis using artificial intelligence tools is advancing significantly. Professor Eccles noted that with Dunedin’s quality pool of computational technicians, this could be an exciting area of collaboration.
  • Professor Jing Wu, a Research Fellow in the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is involved in utilising big data to gather genomic information, track trends and identify potential new diagnostic markers and genes.

Brain Science Fields Workshop

New Zealand Brain Research Institute Clinical Director and Otago Cas Van Der Veer Chair in Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders, Professor Tim Anderson, reported that the forum’s Brain Science Fields workshop presentations contained many areas of high mutual interest, e.g.:

  • Professor Jian Wang of Huashan Hospital, which is affiliated to Fudan University, has an existing collaboration with Professor Anderson in brain imaging research. They seek to develop artificial intelligence tools for early diagnosis using motor-function disorder. Professor Wang also has a novel idea for using a mobile app to monitor treatment and assess patients with Parkinson’s.
  • Professor Jin-Tai Yu of Huashan Hospital outlined pioneering work looking at depression as a prelude to Alzheimer’s Disease and Prof Jijun Wang (Shanghai Mental Health Centre, China) detailed his important research on psychosis. Both professors expressed interest in working with Otago’s Brain Health Research Centre Professor Ping Liu, whose research includes measuring metabolites in the urea cycle for biomarkers of Fragile X Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease. Professor Wang also discussed his existing collaborative work with Professor Liu on plasma metabolic alterations and potential biomarkers in individuals at clinical high risk for psychosis.
  • Professor Bo-Xun Lu of the School of Life Sciences at the Fudan University-Huashan Hospital Joint Research Institute has found novel compounds which, in models, can lower the incidence of the damaging mutant Huntingdon’s Disease (HD) protein without lowering the ‘wild type’ normal proteins. The next stage of his work would involve animal models, mention of which raised the possibility of working with University of Auckland Neurogenetics Group Professor Russell Snell who has developed a sheep model where the brain develops HD as a human’s would. Professor Lu also expressed interest in collaborating with Otago Professor Ping Liu.
  • Otago Brain Health Research Centre Associate Professor Yiwen Zhang is already working with Chinese researchers after she developed a high-quality model of tinnitus combined with collecting related metabolites from animals. Chinese collaborators have been looking at these metabolites and successfully found a difference between those animals with tinnitus and those without. There is further opportunity for collaboration with Shanghai University Ear Nose and Throat Department’s Professor Shan Sun, who has developed an app to measure tinnitus.
  • Neurosurgeon, Professor Jin-Song Wu of Huashan Hospital, is working on direct electrical stimulation of the cerebral cortex to map the language areas of the brain. He has found that the Broca’s area of the brain, which is linked to speech production, is not necessarily the sole area involved in speech arrest.

Modernisation of Traditional Medicines Workshop

Otago School of Pharmacy Associate Professor Arlene McDowell attended the forum’s Modernisation of Traditional Medicines workshop due to her primary research interests, including nanomedicines for drug delivery, incorporating investigation of plant extracts and the influence of natural products on biological systems. She says the workshop’s nine speakers all identified areas of research and technology sharing New Zealand and Chinese researchers could work on together, e.g.:

  • Otago Pharmacy Professor, Sarah Hook and Pro De An Guo, a Research Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica will collaborate on taking the active ingredient from traditional medicines and formulating them into new therapeutics that have better efficacy for patients.
  • University of Auckland School of Pharmacy’s Associate Professor Jingyuan Wen, Associate Professor Zimei Wu and Chendu University of Traditional Medicine Professor Jinming Zhang talked about therapy for diseases such as cancer, and moving from drug development to formulation of ways to get the drug accurately to the tissue of concern in the patient.
  • Otago School of Pharmacy’s Dr Allan Gamble presented his elegant work on designing systems that can be triggered to release drugs. This work has synergies with that of Professor Kewu Zeng (Peking University) who is also using “target fishing” to identify target active compounds in traditional medicines.
  • High through-put screening was discussed by Shanghai University of Traditional Medicine Professor Guangbo Ge, taking plants with medicinal properties and putting them through improved processes for identifying lead compounds.
  • Quality control was of high interest with regards to ensuring there is sufficient active component in a compound, while also reducing contaminants. Otago Department of Botany Associate Professor David Burritt presented insights into strategies to increase production of bioactives in raw materials.

For more information, contact:

NCD CRCC, Administrator Fia Jephson Sandstrom
Tel +64 3 470 9700
Email fia.jephsonsandstrom@otago.ac.nz

Brain Research New Zealand Co-Director Professor Cliff Abraham
Tel +64 3 479 7648
Email cliff.abraham@otago.ac.nz

Associate Professor Arlene McDowell
Tel +64 3 479 7145
Email arlene.mcdowell@otago.ac.nz

Professor Tim Anderson
Tel +64 3 378 6078
Email tim.anderson@otago.ac.nz

Professor Michael Eccles
Tel +64 3 479 7878
Email michael.eccles@otago.ac.nz

https://www.crcc.nz/non-communicable-diseases