Research and Advanced Education
East and West hand in hand in the name of Science - report by Bruno Silva Santos
Six Group leaders of the iMM visited the University of Guangzhou’s Jinan (Guangzhou, China), invited by Zhinan Yin, Professor and Researcher of Immunology. Besides attending a Conference, the meeting also served to establish programs of academic cooperation between teams and future projects.
This meeting in the East followed a visit by the Chinese host Zhinan Yin and the rector of the University of Jinan last year. After visiting several European countries searching for partners for academical cooperation they came to the iMM.
Specialised in Immunology, just like Bruno Silva Santos, Zhinan Yin, he decided to contact him and challenge the Chinese officials to visit the iMM, the professional home of the Portuguese researcher. The challenge was clear, reaching an agreement between institutions in Portugal and China. The wish came true after the first visit to the iMM, and the invitation to visit China came immediately afterwards. “We really wanted to visit our scientific colleagues from China, we took 6 group leaders from the iMM to the Institute of Biomedicine and we met their elite scientists, represented by 11 group leaders. For two days we listened to each other and we had a brainstorm about how our collaboration could work".
And there is good news for this group of scientists, because the Chinese government wants to invest in Science, trying to internationalise it, contradicting years of closed policies for a more global world. Another advantage is that Guangzhou’s Jinan has always been the Chinese university more open to the Western world. Established 112 years ago, this university was created with the aim of receiving Chinese students coming from foreign countries or from former non-Chinese colonies. With close connections to the government, Guangzhou’s Jinan can ask for funding directly and suggest budgets in accordance with its researches. As Chinese institutions are mostly focused on cancer and immunology, the connections to Portugal and the iMM became obvious, excluding, however, areas like neurology which exist only in the iMM. "Of the 32 laboratories in the iMM, I would say that 20 could participate in projects with China”.
Bruno Silva Santos and Luis Graça, from Immunology; João Barata, from Leukaemia; Carmo Fonseca, from Molecular Biology, together with Sérgio de Almeida and Sérgio Dias also connected to the area of Cancer, were the 6 researchers, also Professors at the FMUL, chosen for the first official meeting.
But it is clear that these were only first steps of a far bigger movement.
It is inevitable to ask you if Science is a global concept or if it is still somewhat divided between the reality of the West and that of the East.
Bruno Silva Santos: We can find differences in small things. Even in research projects, the Chinese researches have a great interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and they try to give a scientific base to what is scientific in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In other words, they test many compounds and come to the conclusion that some don't have a scientific base, like Homoeopathy, but others do, like Acupuncture and they manage to explain the biological mechanism creating a bridge between Traditional and conventional Medicine.
And, as European scientists, does this approach make sense to you?
Bruno Silva Santos: Yes, it does, and it is feasible, as long as it is well controlled and done with scientific methods and that is what we found. But there is always another, more "eccentric" element. They find it very interesting to compare Eastern and Western diets, because there is the notion that internationalisation led China to follow bad Western eating habits. So, they carried out a study about the effects of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, with and without sugar, with and without caffeine, and they associated it with the development of multiple sclerosis in mice. With this study in mice they came to the conclusion that the sugar in Coca-Cola promotes the development of multiple sclerosis, increasing the severity of the disease. On the other hand, caffeine is a protector. Now, this study goes in the direction of one that had already been presented by Luisa Lopes, researcher in the iMM and Faculty Professor, which showed that caffeine protects against neurodegeneration. But sugar as a protector against the severity of this autoimmune disease, multiple sclerosis, was something they found interesting in this paradox between East and West. It is interesting because in the West we don't look that much at the East.
Is it that by "absorbing" some characteristics of the East we are also opening a new horizon and perspective of Science itself?
Bruno Silva Santos: I think so, and I think that we will pay more attention to more researches. Now, of course it is necessary to separate "the wheat from the chaff". But there is no doubt that we are missing out on important things. There are things we are testing in the West, in particular here in the iMM, and China can open doors to new therapeutic combinations. I will give you an example, today we are a lot more interested in understanding microbiome, in other words, our gut bacteria. It is important to understand how these bacteria condition many different diseases, not only the most obvious ones, but also some that lead to autism. And given the fact that China has a microbiome that is very different from ours, not only geographical but also in terms of food, leads our animal models’ mice have very different bacteria. That allows us to compare results from the disease model in a colony of mice established in the iMM and another established in Guangzhou to see if we have the same effect or not. No doubt that it can have a huge impact on our interpretation of the model, due to the fact that we are using a mouse with a different microbiome as a starting point. These Chinese scientists have already sent us a list with all the colonies of mutant mice and disease models they have, some of the models we don't even have. So, in the context of our collaboration, we bring mice models from China to Portugal so we can test the disease models we are interested in. And this will allow another thing, in the case of models they are already using there, which is comparing results and checking whether there are any differences.
What will be the next step of this encounter between two worlds?
Bruno Silva Santos: Now I will have the responsibility of receiving a delegation from the Chinese institute later this year. The goal is to do a follow up with presentations of the iMM. As I said, it was only 6 of us, but 14 more can enter, in terms of groups. The idea is to gather everyone in the Arrábida Convent, a place to which, thanks to the Orient Foundation, one of the founders of the iMM, we have privileged access. We have already held several retreats there and we will try to hold this meeting there too. But until then we have work to do, using mice, we will exchange views and ideas about individual projects.
I can confirm that the next conference will be crucial to define this collaboration more consistently.
But there is more, in China they are investing a lot in post-doctoral training, with scholarship, making much bigger investments than Europe. And at this Chinese institute they are very interested in sharing their post-doctoral scientists. This would allow a real possibility of an exchange, with funding already guaranteed by the Chinese state. It is just necessary to agree on a rationale for the project that benefits both parts.
Let's talk numbers to explain the dimension of things a bit better. While the congress of the Portuguese Society of Immunology brings together 300 people, the congress in China reaches 3 000 participants. Even so, the Portuguese to Chinese proportion shows the quality of what is done in our country.
While Guangzhou has 12 million inhabitants, Portugal doesn't even reach 11 million. And as for education, there is a lot more to show. In total, China has approximately 600 universities. With 216 research institutions, 74 PhD programs, and 189 master's degree programs, 37 different schools and 19 associated hospitals, the University of Guangzhou’s Jinan is distributed across 5 different campuses, with more than 100 thousand students and 2 200 professors. Within this framework, there are also 10 programmes taught in English, one of which is Clinical Medicine, opening the doors to internationalisation.
Researcher Zhinan Yin alone receives, in gross figures, 10 times more than what Bruno Silva Santos could have access to in Portugal.
And while China is the second world power, Portugal doesn't compete for that ranking, but as far as for the Portuguese researcher and Professor is concerned, he is certainly ranked as one of the most internationally recognized. It was not in vain that, at the closing of the 1st Conference in Guangzhou, Zhinan Yin said that this elite Portuguese team would serve as an inspiration to raise the level of Chinese Science.
The 1st Conference in Guangzhou marks the beginning of new bridges between worlds, but now it is important to assess how European and Chinese investments are mobilized in order to put will into practice. In the name of Science. In the name of a single world.
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