Barely off the plane from China, Xu Wenming is already busy in the laboratory of his new research partner, Quebecer Simon Wing, in the field of experimental genetic medicine at McGill University. Together they will try to unravel the genetic factors behind male infertility, hoping to help explain why more than two percent of men worldwide cannot get their partners pregnant.
Although they live more than 10,000 km apart, Dr. Xu and Dr. Wing are, in fact, members of a very small group of experts: fewer than 10 research groups in the world are looking at specific genetic mutations as potential determinants of male infertility. Dr. Wing, in a paper published last year, reported a new finding about fertility in mice (that inactivation of a gene involved in regulating the degradation of cellular proteins causes decreased fertility). If his findings prove to be true with humans, this could eventually lead to drug therapy for male carriers of that gene, as well as new approaches to creating male contraceptives.
To validate his results with humans, Dr. Wing needs a very large number of infertile male subjects. As it happens, his Chinese collaborator has access to precisely that. Dr. Xu’s research lab is attached to one of China’s largest university hospitals at Sichuan University in Chengdu City. The West China Second University Hospital treats thousands of infertile men each year. “We wouldn’t be able to have access to the same number of patients here,” said Dr. Wing.
Sharing and comparing genetic data with data from the Chinese population can take health research in new directions, not only because China’s population is huge – 1.3 billion – but also because it is fairly homogeneous. This makes identifying specific genetic markers of any given condition, such as infertility, much easier when comparing genomes. So, geneticists from the West have been eager to work with China to access such a valuable, large gene pool.
But the road to real partnerships, like that of Drs. Xu and Wing, has been a bumpy one, to say the least. “Chinese are highly concerned with bio-piracy and foreign scientists’ exploitation of China’s genetic resources,” said Wen-Ching Sung, an assistant professor of medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She added, “They want to be research partners, not just material and data providers.”
One of the roadblocks in such partnerships has been harmonizing rules, protocols and consent. As an example, “informed consent” of research subjects in China doesn’t always meet Western standards, said Dr. Sung. China recently modified some of its regulatory frameworks, including informed consent, to encourage international partnerships.
Viviane Poupon, program manager with the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé, said the Xu-Wing collaboration could result in a joint scientific publication with China. Dr. Wing, who planned to spend some time at his colleague’s lab in China, said their goal is to publish papers together.
Across the board, Canadian research partnerships with Chinese medical researchers are beginning to flourish after 10 years of slow growth. Anthony Phillips, director of the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, said CIHR just renewed a program to support 45 grants with Chinese scientists in various fields, including six in genetics. “The Chinese are trying very hard to adopt the same principles as in the West,” he said, “and recently we have been pleasantly impressed at how they conduct peer review.”
Very little research has involved sharing genetic information from the Chinese, until recently. “In 2008, it was still impossible to take DNA samples out of China,” observed Catalina Lopez-Correa, vice-president, scientific affairs, with Génome Québec. The agency, together with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, is funding the three-year collaborative project of Drs. Xu and Wing.
She said that when Génome Québec was asked by the Quebec ministry of economic development in 2009 to encourage research collaboration with China, it wasn’t obvious to Génome Québec that China would become a leader in genomic research. But today China is very much in the game, having built the largest sequencing facility in the world, with 167 sequencing machines capable of deciphering 2,000 genomes a day. By comparison, the Génome Québec-McGill centre, one of the biggest in Canada, has 12 sequencers.
While China becomes more open to international partnerships in medical research, there remain many difficult patches. “I don’t want to give you the impression that this is all smooth sailing,” said Dr. Phillips of CIHR. For instance, Dr. Wing was asked by the McGill research ethics committee reviewing his proposal whether the Chinese men participating in the research had given consent to allow their DNA to travel to Canada. “I actually don’t know the answer to that question,” he admitted. If not, the samples will be analyzed in China, he said.
Despite the occasional roadblock, partnerships like theirs are the way of the future, concluded Dr. Phillips. “Genetic and other factors that affect the health of all mankind are so immense and demand such highly intense research that we cannot tackle them on our own. International partnerships, such as we have with China, are absolutely necessary to solve aggressive health issues related to aging and infectious diseases.”