Chinese partners bring strong potential to advance research at ASU Biodesign Institute

By

Joe Caspermeyer

Arizona State University's approach to global research engagement addresses some of the most pressing problems facing us in health today: issues such as global pandemics and a growing cancer incidence in the developing world that require multiple, transnational partners to come up with solutions more rapidly.

Recently, ASU Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer led a delegation to visit key Chinese partners to further explore new research possibilities. The stops included long-time academic partner Sichuan University and its top-ranked Huaxi Hospital, and a rapidly developing high-tech corridor anchored by Soochow University.

“ASU’s Biodesign Institute and China’s top research universities have a lot of overlaps and common interests, particularly in developing early disease diagnostics and improved treatments and vaccines for cancer and infectious disease,” LaBaer said.

Currently, ASU works with more than 10 top universities in China, as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Science and Technology. The university’s programs in China include the Global Decision Theater Alliance, the Center for American Culture and an executive MBA program under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Finance.

“There’s a lot of parallels between ASU and Sichuan University,” LaBaer said. “Scientifically and culturally, it seems like an excellent match. The idea would be that we would create a Biodesign unit there, having their own centers, but also centers that might bridge the two. Huaxi Hospital is particularly interested in a diagnostics and a precision medicine center.”

At its Tempe campus, ASU has pioneered a dynamic new academic research model that has the world taking notice of its flagship hub of 21st-century innovation, the Biodesign Institute.

With its nature-inspired and convergent, “big team” approach to science, the Biodesign Institute has more than 200 high-risk, high-impact research projects, including research on 100 different diseases with a goal of improving health outcomes, security and the sustainability of our planet.

Pairing the best of the Southwest

In China, ASU already has a well-established partnership with its sister university, Sichuan University — a public, national university in southwest China with 50,000 students in the heart of the Sichuan province’s capital city of 14.5 million people, Chengdu. 

The alliance has emerged over the past two decades, when two-like minded presidents — ASU President Michael Crow and Sichuan University’s President Xie Heping — took the helm around the same time to lead their universities away from the traditional academic status quo in their respective countries. Over the years, they’ve implemented a series of initiatives to foster a new higher education model with global engagement in mind, including the ASU-Sichuan University Joint Confucius Institute.

Now, LaBaer wants to lead the expansion of research partnerships, a win-win proposition pairing China’s top-ranked clinical partner with the most innovative university in the U.S.

“There’s a lot of interest in China to partner with us, set up new collaborations, new research centers, and foster faculty and student exchange, while modeling their research in a similar way to the Biodesign Institute,” LaBaer said.

LaBaer, along with Biodesign Insitute colleagues Hao Yan and Tony Hu, met with Sichuan University President Xie and Vice President Xuehong Wan, who leads the top-ranked Sichuan University’s Huaxi Medical Sciences University and Huaxi Hospital. Huaxi Hospital was recently ranked as “China’s Best Hospital” and is consistently ranked as one of the top five medical schools.

“Huaxi Hospital would really be a highly complementary partner for us,” LaBaer said. “It is an outstanding hospital, and center for excellence in clinical research that is comprehensive in all aspects.

“At Biodesign, we are developing new diagnostic tools that must be tested in patients before they can be available for commercial use,” LaBaer said. “Partnering with Huaxi Hospital would provide access to their patients, opening the door to new opportunities for working with their clinical programs.”  

Unlike many research institutes across the U.S., the Biodesign Institute is not linked to a hospital, but currently partners with hospitals across the Phoenix metro area and the U.S. to test new diagnostics.

Huaxi Hospital’s sprawling medical campus includes four affiliated hospitals. Huaxi Hospital is the largest hospital in China and the largest single-site hospital in the world. It has a staff of 6,000 including 550 doctors and associate professors, with 4,300 beds, 36 clinical departments and 15 medical practice departments. It routinely serves more than 3 million outpatients visits, 100,000 inpatients and 50,000 surgical operations annually.

In medical research, Huaxi Hospital is also a powerhouse, and was recently the number-one ranked scientific impact hospital by the Chinese Academy of Medical Science. Its medical research strengths include clinical and integrative medicine, regenerative medicine and the fields of neurology, oncology, cardiology and laboratory medicine.

“They are one of just six testing centers in the country for the Chinese version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), called the CFDA,” LaBaer said. “Seventeen of their faculty members sit on the board of the CFDA, so if you have something that you want to get tested for CFDA clearance, having that local expertise would be extraordinary, and a good fit for Biodesign. We don’t have that here, and it would give us that kind of window.”

This would include Biodesign biomarker discoveries, TB screening and medical applications of nanotechnology.

“All of that would be outstanding and there’s a lot of opportunities for making all sorts of connections there that we are very excited about,” LaBaer said.

The fastest-growing research partners

At another stop in their whirlwind tour, Biodesign leadership hopscotched to the east coast of China to explore Soochow University, which is located in the Jiangsu province, about 60 miles west of Shanghai.

Like ASU, Soochow University was a teacher’s college in the 1950s, but has vastly expanded its research to become a comprehensive research university, and now is in the top 5 percent of China’s research rankings, with particular strengths in its engineering and medical schools.

“Soochow is one of the fastest growing research universities in the country, just like ASU,” LaBaer said.

There, they met with Soochow University’s Vice President Xiaohong Zhang, who gave an overview of the region and highlighted key opportunities at one of China’s fastest-rising research universities.

“There is a strategy to have the potential to exchange intellectual property (IP), cultivate shared research interests, to do discoveries and mutual exchanges of faculty and shared students, and perhaps joint appointments to explore,” LaBaer said. “In terms of IP, think of Soochow as the Chinese ‘Boston for bioscience.’ It’s situated in the heart of all the startups. They have a big area called Biobay that incubates start-ups, investors nearby, a few miles down the road from Wuxi, where all the big pharma companies have manufacturing — all right down the road from Shanghai, one of the biggest cities in the world.

“Soochow is very well positioned for us to do a partnership,” LaBaer said. “Monitoring American IP in China has always been a nightmare. But if we had a partner in China, who has their ear to the ground, it would be a lot easier.”

Among the Biodesign Institute's strengths to expand with China are new technologies for vaccine discovery and delivery, including breakthrough efforts made with Ebola, and the early detection and treatment of cancer and infectious diseases.

“They have a strong interest in synthetic biology, so the idea has been discussed about creating a new Biodesign center around this area,” LaBaer said. “The next steps will be crafting an agreement with them.”

Yan, who directs ASU's Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, currently partners with several Chinese universities to advance the field of DNA origami, which may one day revolutionize medicine by making and delivering drugs inside of cells. 

“Chinese scientists were fascinated by the potential of DNA origami nanotechnology for new health care and electronic applications,” Yan said. “I think we are much closer to real practical applications of the technology and we are actively looking at the first nanomedicine applications with our DNA origami technology.”

Biodesign researcher Tony Hu was most impressed with the speed and pace of Soochow’s progress, and an ideal setup as a “one-stop shop” for translational research into the marketplace.

“In Soochow, you can tell how quickly the technology can be translated within their high-tech park,” said Hu, who has made several important breakthroughs in tuberculosis, or TB, which has infected about one-third of residents in China.

“From the standardization of the product, to licensing, to negotiating with the investor or company for incubation, and also sales and marketing. We call this the ‘dragon line.’ The pipeline for translation is all there.”

This is very appealing to Hu and his research team, who have also adapted their technology to turn smartphones into handheld microscopes to make an impact as a versatile and powerful new tool in the worldwide fight against infectious diseases.

Through these expanded relationships with China, ASU hopes to continue to promote cross-cultural, breakthrough research on some of the world’s most pressing problems, and continue interdisciplinary study and engagement, entrepreneurship, and social and economic development locally and abroad.

“The framework for what we are going to do is starting to take shape,” LaBaer said. “We are tremendously excited to combine our best resources and ideas with these stellar organizations.”