At the turning point

Both partners, Boehringer Ingelheim and Peking University, at the contract signing on 16 May 2017 in Beijing. In the foreground: Dr Rui-Ping Xiao of Peking University and Dr Clive Wood, Head of Discovery Research at Boehringer Ingelheim.

 

Both partners, Boehringer Ingelheim and Peking University, at the contract signing on 16 May 2017 in Beijing. In the foreground: Dr Rui-Ping Xiao of Peking University and Dr Clive Wood, Head of Discovery Research at Boehringer Ingelheim.

 

In recent decades, China has become a leading economic power. The country is currentlyoutstanding in research, too. Those involvednow can help shape the future.

Lots of people have asked me why I left the USA to return to China eight years ago in 2010. I had worked there for twenty years as a senior investigator at the National Institute on Aging (NIH). The answer is simple: in 2010, scientific research was at an historical turning point in China and I wanted to be part of history when my home country progresses into one of the leading research locations on the planet. So, when Peking University invited me to become the head of its new Institute of Molecular Medicine, I seized the opportunity and accepted. And the institute, with its research into cardio-metabolic diseases and regenerative medicine, has in fact become one of the leading institutions in the world over the past few years.

In general, the international significance of my homeland’s scientific community has grown considerably over recent years. China is now ranked second for research after the USA in terms of the number of patents and scientific publications in international journals. According to forecasts, this trend is set to continue. The Chinese government is thus increasingly investing resources to further promote science and technology in the country.

When I graduated in medicine from Tong-Ji Medical University in Wuhan in 1987, the standing of the sciences in the country was not so good. Universities simply lacked resources to finance their research. It was clear to me then that if I wanted to achieve anything as a scientist, I would have to leave my homeland. That was the case for lots of Chinese researchers at the time. Thousands of talented people, like me, left for the USA or Europe in order to continue to research or teach there. But then the Chinese government increased its research spending by over 20 per cent – on a sustainable basis. As a result, the situation today is completely different with more and more scientists returning home to China.

“Basic research is often time-consuming and expensive. It can take decades, if ever, to achieve any marketable results.”

A GUEST CONTRIBUTION BY RUI-PING XIAO,


Head of the institute of molecular medicine at Peking University

In the USA, I specialized in cardiovascular disease. At the National Institute on Aging, I developed treatments to strengthen the heart muscle after a heart attack, for example. I was able to continue my research in this field at Peking University. At the Institute of Molecular Medicine, we are now also conducting basic research into metabolic disorders. We are looking at the consequences for major diseases, such as type-2 diabetes and its complications like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can have a disastrous impact on the whole body. That is why we are looking for ways to treat these complications.

Basic research is often time-consuming and expensive. It can take decades, if ever, to achieve any marketable results. Without basic research, however, medical breakthroughs are difficult. Now, the team at the university thankfully has opportunities to pursue this costly but necessary form of research. As a scientist, however, you might get to the stage where you need further support from the private sector. After all, even the best research is fruitless if it fails to reach people. This is where strong industry partners come in, bringing the strength and zest to develop the results further, making them ready for the market.

We have found such a partner in Boehringer Ingelheim. Since May 2017, Peking University has been a cooperation partner of the Research Beyond Borders programme with which Boehringer Ingelheim promotes highly promising research outside the company’s traditional therapeutic areas. The strategic partnership primarily concerns regenerative medicine. Currently, there are five projects investigating different topics, such as cell regeneration of the heart and the pancreas. However, the joint research agenda also covers topics such as cancer and diabetes research, as well as gene therapy. Two further projects are also to be launched in the near future. Thanks to the partnership, Boehringer Ingelheim has access to our research results and helps us to implement them in practice.

“Thanks to the partnership, Boehringer Ingelheim has access to our research results and helps us to implement them in practice.”

BOEHRINGER INGELHEIM’S DISCOVERY RESEARCH STRATEGY

Boehringer Ingelheim’s discovery research strategy is based on three pillars. The cooperation with Peking University supports the goal of harnessing emerging scientific developments. These activities are bundled in the third pillar, Research Beyond Borders (see infobox, right). The discovery research strategy helps Boehringer Ingelheim to repeatedly originate innovations that benefit patients. The company focuses on external partnerships, its own strengths and further approaches.

BEYOND BORDERS

In 2015, Boehringer Ingelheim established its Research Beyond Borders (RBB) team in the field of Discovery Research. The team has 28 employees based in Biberach (Germany), Ridgefield, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts (USA), Beijing and Shanghai (China), Kobe (Japan) and Vienna (Austria). From these locations, the team’s scouts search the international scientific community for promising ideas and actively establish contact with researchers at external research institutions and universities.

RBB’s goal is to identify novel scientific approaches and technologies within and beyond the company’s current therapeutic areas, which could be future focus areas. Examples are regenerative medicine, gene therapy and microbiome research. In the meantime, RBB has concluded over 30 partnerships with universities and scientific institutes. RBB is also planning collaborations with biotech companies and start-ups.

At the same time, Boehringer Ingelheim supports Peking University in several ways: the company is currently financing four of our postdoc positions, with other posts in the pipeline. However, even more important than financial support is the wealth of specialist expertise that we are able to draw on as participants of the Research Beyond Borders programme. Boehringer Ingelheim has, for example, an extensive expertise on cancer research, which has significantly enriched our research.

Over the course of my career as a researcher, I have already worked with many different partners from the world of industry – and it is not always easy. Many companies simply do not understand that good research can also show no apparent success for decades before ultimately achieving a major breakthrough overnight. Instead, they press for quick results that can be marketed profitably so that they get a rapid return on their investment. But research does not work under such conditions. In addition, there are the cultural hurdles that many companies are unable to handle properly. This can lead to misunderstandings that make a partnership difficult.

Precisely in the field of basic research, it is very important to be able to communicate properly and unambiguously. Boehringer Ingelheim has understood that. As part of the strategic partnership, we have a contact partner within the Research Beyond Borders team who not only lives and works in China, but is also familiar with the European and American ways of working. Thanks to her knowledge of both worlds, she’s an outstanding mediator between the two cultures. That makes cross-border communication much easier.

Our aim for the future is to continue to deepen and expand this cooperation. For example, we plan to establish a further five postdoc positions and finance them as part of the program. I think that it is very important for many researchers that their work will benefit society at some point. China is offering scientists exceptional opportunities at the moment. Perhaps these positions might enable us to welcome more returnees who do not want to miss this historic moment in China.