MOU signed between NCD CRCC and the First Bethune Hospital of Jilin University

In early October 2018 the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge co-Director Professor Parry Guilford, NCD CRCC Research Collaboration Manager Dr Hu Zhang and Cancer Research Fellow Donghui Zou were invited to the First Bethune Hospital of Jilin University in Changchun, China. They met with the Hospital Director Professor Shucheng Hua and his team to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between NCD CRCC and the First Bethune Hospital of Jilin University. This Agreement will foster closer cooperation in training of young scientists and encourage joint international research projects in the areas of translational medicine for the prevention, management and treatment of major chronic non-communicable diseases.

The First Bethune Hospital of Jilin University was founded in 1948 and is consistently ranked as one of the most prestigious universities in China. The Hospital is a leading national research University under the direct jurisdiction of China’s Ministry of Education. It is a large-scale comprehensive tertiary hospital with medical, teaching, scientific research, prevention, health care and rehabilitation.

This MOU is an important outcome and NCD CRCC looks forward to playing an active role in encouraging connections with the First Bethune Hospital and contributing to the arrangement where needed by working closely with our connections in China.

During their visit to the First Bethune Hospital, they also visited the Oncology Department, Gene Test Centre, Translational Medicine Research Institute, Phase I drug clinical trial wards and Pediatric Oncology Department where they met with a team lead by Professor Jian Chang (Director of the Pediatric Oncology Department). Professor Parry Guilford and Research Fellow Donghui Zou presented their research on gastric cancer, circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) and cancer diagnostics. Both parties share interest in ctDNA studies and are now exploring the logistics of working together on ctDNA and monitoring the relapse of neuroblastoma and lymphoma.

From left: Professor Bin Liu, Professor Shucheng Hua, Professor Parry Guilford and Dr Hu Zhang

Research collaboration strengthened

Dr José Derraik, who was awarded The New Zealand‒China Non-communicable Diseases Emerging Researcher Travel Fellowship in January 2018, has been appointed as an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Children’s Hospital at Zhejiang University School of Medicine (Hangzhou, China).

With the support of the NZ‒China Emerging Researcher Travel Fellowship, Dr Derraik has been visiting Hangzhou and developing a close collaboration with Prof Jun-Fen Fu and her team at the Children’s Hospital.

Together, they are planning a long-term research collaboration that will benefit researchers in both New Zealand and China. The research will be examining a number of aspects of child health, with a strong focus on obesity in children and adolescents. Obesity in youth is an increasing problem in New Zealand and China, with associated adverse effects on both short- and long-term health. In this context, part of their research will involve closely examining a large cohort of obese children and adolescents to get a better understanding of the associated metabolic and cardiovascular comorbidities. Aims include developing a prediction model to identify youngsters with still undiagnosed cardiometabolic comorbidities, which would enable early intervention and maximising long-term health and wellbeing.

Dr Derraik’s Honorary appointment recognises his valuable contribution to this international collaboration which has already resulted in the submission of an HRC grant application, the acceptance of two poster presentations at large international conferences (European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Asia Pacific Paediatric Endocrine Society), and the preparation of two manuscripts.

Dr José Derraik (in the front row second from left) meets with Professor Jun-Fen Fu (right of Dr Derraik) and her team at Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang in University School of Medicine, Hangzhou.

2017-18 CSC–NCD CRCC Joint Scholarship announced

Jiaxian Zhang is the first recipient of a PhD Scholarship from the Joint Funding Programme between China Scholarship Council and New Zealand-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre (CSC-NCD CRCC Joint Funding Programme).

In October 2017 Jiaxian (Jessy) Zhang enrolled in a PhD at the University of Otago, Dunedin, under the primary supervision of Associate Professor Ping Liu, this is fully supported by the CSC-NCD CRCC Joint Funding Programme.

Jiaxian initially trained as a medical doctor at the Inner Mongolia Medical University in China. She moved to Dunedin to undertake a Bachelor of Biomedical Science with Honours at the University of Otago, which culminated in two publications. This topic was extended further to a PhD thesis which investigates the effects of maternal immune activation on the brain function and neurochemistry of offspring during early developmental stages.

Knowledge gained from this work in offspring at high risk of schizophrenia will enhance our understanding of the underlying mechanisms of this disease and may lead to future development of novel preventions and/or therapeutics.

“My supervisors are very supportive and kind. The Department of Anatomy is a big department with many research platforms and it’s easy to communicate with other research groups because it’s all so close together!”

“This scholarship has not only provided support for my studies, but allows me to make a contribution to improving human health in both countries.”

In her spare time Jiaxian enjoys snowboarding, surfing and tramping, “New Zealand has beautiful scenery and friendly people, which have impressed me deeply. Living here has made me feel I can focus on my study and enjoy life. The balance between work and life allows me to have more energy to focus on my research”

“I’m enjoying every second of it and I hope I can make a contribution to research collaboration between China and New Zealand. I’ve been lucky and I want to give something back.”

2017 NCD Emerging Researcher Travel Fellowship announced

Dr José Derraik of the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland has been awarded the inaugural NZ-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre emerging researcher travel fellowship.

The fellowship, funded by the MBIE Catalyst Fund, is designed to support emerging New Zealand-based researchers to establish connections with Chinese counterparts. Dr Derraik receives $34,000 to progress a joint research project with the Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine. 

In Hangzhou, Dr Derraik will work with researchers on health data collection from a series of large cohorts of children. He has had a preliminary meeting with Professor Jun-fen Fu, the vice-president of the Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in December.

Professor Fu’s team is working with researchers from A Better Start National Science Challenge to gather health data on thousands of school-aged children. In the meantime, work has started on cross-sectional health data collected from nearly 23,000 children across China in 2009 and 2010.

Dr Derraik says, “There are a lot of valuable data on these children, their BMI, blood lipids, diet, and physical activity, and importantly, certain health indicators for their parents.” This collaboration aims to examine a number of important questions on the long-term health effects of early life events on Chinese children. However, it also aims to test the appropriateness of the obesity prediction model being developed as one of the linked projects in A Better Start’s Healthy Weight research theme.

Access to such a lode of child health data opens up all sorts of research opportunities. José says large cohorts make it possible for example, to detect clinically important differences in a population to enable deeper insight into the complex interactions that affect a child’s health.

The NZ-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre is a joint initiative of the three health National Science Challenges: A Better Start, Healthier Lives and Ageing Well. The Centre signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with Zhejiang University School of Medicine in October 2017 to promote research collaboration and technological innovation for the prevention, management and treatment of major chronic diseases. 

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Dr José Derraik (second from right) meets with Professor Jun-Fen Fu (right of Dr Derraik) and her team at Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang in University School of Medicine, Hangzhou.

Ideas to Life: Creating new links between New Zealand and Chinese health researchers

In mid-December 2017, Professor Chris Bullen, Director of the University of Auckland’s National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI) and NIHI biostatistician Dr Yannan Jiang visited the Chinese city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, to take part in the University of Auckland’s Initial ‘Ideas to Life’ conference.

Hangzhou is a fast-growing city, with a population of around 10 million. It is regarded as China’s ‘Silicon valley’, home to the headquarters of globally successful Chinese IT companies such as Alibaba, Tencent (owners of WeChat), Hikvision, the largest video application supplier in the world and Huawai, the most famous Chinese mobile device company.

The conference was a showcase for both New Zealand and Chinese researchers. Themes included ‘Food for Health’ and ‘Digital Innovation’, with a focus on connections to research translation and commercialisation opportunities in the huge Chinese market.

The programme also included site visits to a range of funding, commercial and research organisations, involving presentations and meetings about possible collaborations.

Professor Bullen delivered two presentations, one on behalf of Prof Cliona Ni Mhurchu titled “Using new technologies to deliver and evaluate nutrition interventions”, and another on “Can mobile technology change behaviour? Lessons from a decade of research”.

Professor Ni Mhurchu, Professor Bullen and Dr Jiang* have a long-standing research collaboration with Professor Hai-Jun Wang at the Department of Maternal and Child Health and the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health at Peking University, Beijing, so this was a new venture in another part of China.

The Auckland team met with Professor Jie Shao, Director of the Department of Child Health Care and Chief Doctor, Department of Paediatrics at Zhejiang University School of Medicine who is keen to explore wearable camera research with infants and their caregivers.

Professor Bullen also met with tobacco control researchers at Zhejiang University, the premier university in Hangzhou. The meeting led to plans for a collaborative tobacco cessation intervention trial targeting Chinese adult men, around 45% of whom are smokers, to be led by Professor Bullen’s PhD student, Jimmy Chan.

* Professor Ni Mhurchu, Professor Bullen and Dr Jiang are founding members of the NCD CRCC, which partially sponsored their visit.

From left: Yannan Jiang; Chris Bullen; and Jimmy Chan.

NZ-China non-communicable disease research strengthened

The NZ-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC) recently signed four Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with four leading Chinese research institutions – highlighting the growing collaborations between New Zealand and Chinese health researchers.

The signing took place during a week-long visit to New Zealand by 14 leading Chinese NCD researchers, hosted by the NCD CRCC in early October.  The delegation visited Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin to hold discussions with more than 50 NZ researchers. Some immediate and exciting possibilities for collaboration were discussed during the week and these will be pursued in the coming months.

The four Chinese institutions signing the MoUs with the NCD CRCC are Huashan Hospital, Shanghai Mental Health Centre, the Fudan University School of Public Health and the Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Capital University Tongren Hospital also took part in the visit.

The agreements foster closer cooperation in research addressing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in areas such as diabetes, heart disease, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

Two of the four MoUs also involve Brain Research NZ, a Centre of Research Excellence, jointly hosted by Auckland and Otago Universities.

NCD CRCC Director Jim Mann says the agreements will also allow the collaborating partners to draw on the support of researchers throughout three of the New Zealand’s government-mandated National Science Challenges: “A Better Start”, “Healthier Lives,” and “Ageing Well”.

“New Zealand is a small country, but one that has paved the way in learning from its experiences in attempts to prevent and treat NCDs, which are now emerging as a pressing health burden for many other countries, especially those such as China.

“Both their people and those of our own nation face a significant task in preventing and treating NCDs, which are poised to take a growing toll of premature death and ill health in both nations.

“Our strengthening collaborations will allow us to match up New Zealand NCD research know-how with breakthrough Chinese techniques, their outstanding facilities, and a wealth of “big data” research opportunities that China’s vast nation avails – our country’s expertise in “big data” systems has grown enormously over the past few years and continues to do so.

Mayor of Dunedin Dave Cull, who attended the MOU signing ceremony, says the latest agreement is yet another product of the strong civic relationship that Dunedin – through Enterprise Dunedin and Project China – has developed with its sister city, Shanghai, in recent years.

“As well as social and health benefits, these types of collaborations bring economic benefits to our city in the form of research grants.

“Dunedin is a knowledge city and our increasingly outward-looking focus is providing profitable educational and economic links.

“It’s also exciting to know that our researchers are at the forefront of some potentially significant health advancements,” says Mr Cull.

Education Consul from the Chinese Consulate General in Christchurch, Jianjun Zhai, also attended the signing and extended his warm congratulations to all those involved.  

“NZ is a pace setter in terms of delivering relationships with China, which is its largest trade partner, largest source of international students and second largest source of tourists” says Mr Zhai.

“In March this year the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited NZ to sign a high-level agreements for cooperation in a number of fields, including science, education, technology and innovation.  Today is a really solid start in implementing those high level agreements and I look forward to seeing the results that will flow for the betterment of our two peoples.”

From left: Chonbo Li, Shanghai Mental Health Centre, Junfen Fu, Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Jim Mann, NZ-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre, Xiangjun Chen, Huashan Hospital, Richard Blaikie, University of Otago, Gemning Zhao, Fudan University School of Public Health and Cliff Abraham, Brain Research NZ

New Zealand researchers visit China

A delegation of leading New Zealand scientists visited China from 15-19 May for a week of productive discussions about how the two countries can collaborate on research to improve human health.  The expertise of the New Zealand team ranged across neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular disease, gout, diabetes and obesity, and was matched by that of senior Chinese counterparts from several universities, hospital and research institutes.

China is undergoing reforms in the way scientific research is structured, with the specialist expertise of Principal Investigators becoming an increasingly important factor in funding decisions.  Building relationships between leading scientists in both countries is therefore the key to building strong international collaborations.

The New Zealand scientists headed first to Shanghai for a workshop jointly hosted by the NCD CRCC and the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission, and supported by the New Zealand Consulate. They met with potential research collaborators, such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Sciences and Fudan University Institute of Brain Science, and also caught up with old friends from Huashan Hospital, Rujin Hospital, Shanghai Mental Hospital, and Fudan University School of Public Health.

There is particular interest in Shanghai in the construction of a brain bank to support advanced brain research. Professor Cliff Abraham, Co-Director of Brain Research NZ, his colleagues Professor Peter Thorne and Professor John Reynolds, and Associate Professor Maurice Curtis, Deputy Director of the NZ Brain Bank, shared information about New Zealand’s brain research capability and experience in setting up a brain bank.  They held productive discussions with Professor Mao Ying, Vice President of Huashan Hospital, Dr Mu-ming Poo, Director of CAS ION, and their colleagues in a series of meetings and site visits, where they learned more about the impressive brain research expertise and facilities in Shanghai.  Together the scientists from both countries are looking forward to the next steps in pinning down detailed proposals for collaborative brain research projects.

Other members of the New Zealand delegation have expertise in human nutrition, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and childhood obesity.  Professor Jim Mann, NCD CRCC Director, and his colleagues Professor Rachael Taylor and Associate Professor Jeremy Krebs held discussions with Professor Junfen Fu, Vice President of Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine, whose major research interest is the prevention and treatment of obesity and diabetes in children.

Professor Zhao Genmin from the Fudan University School of Public Health shared information about his exciting large-scale cohort study for cardiovascular disease, which has recently received 5 years’ funding from the central government.  Researchers within the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge in New Zealand are currently developing cardiovascular risk predictions equations for different ethnic groups, including people of Chinese ethnicity, and there is interest in taking the equations to China for validation in this cohort study.  

In the second half of the week the New Zealand scientists headed to Beijing to participate in a two day workshop jointly hosted by the Natural Sciences Foundation of China and the Health Research Council of New Zealand.  Professor Tony Merriman joined the delegation in Beijing to bring his expertise in gout to the sessions on metabolic diseases. The New Zealand researchers were pleased to meet researchers from Beijing and other parts of the country, and made a number of useful contacts, which they plan to follow up.

Whilst in Beijing, the NCD CRCC also held discussion with the China Scholarship Council about increasing opportunities for scientific exchanges between the two countries for emerging, mid-career and senior researchers.

The NCD CRCC greatly appreciates the strong support we have received from the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission and the NZ Consulate General in Shanghai in contributing to another successful visit to Shanghai.  We also value our productive ongoing relationship with the China Scholarship Council, and the opportunities provided by the Natural Sciences Foundation of China and the Health Research Council of New Zealand to learn more about the wider health research system in China.

From left: Hu Mu (International Cooperation department), John Reynolds, Hu Zhang, Rachael Taylor, Jim Mann, Guergana Guermanoff (New Zealand Consul-General in Shanghai), Peter Thorne, Fu Guoging (Shanghai S&T Commission), Maurice Curtis and Jeremy Krebs

The genetics of gout in different ethnic groups

Gout is one of the most common types of inflammatory arthritis caused by the deposition of monosodium urate crystals in and around the joints. Genetic factors play a leading role in gout but it is also affected by environmental factors such as diet. The incidence of gout varies among different population groups worldwide: in the Han Chinese population it is 3%, in the New Zealand European population it is 3%, while in the Māori and Pacific populations of New Zealand it is 6-8%.

Prof Yongyong Shi’s research group in Shanghai Jiao Tong University has established a large biobank of gout in the Han Chinese population in cooperation with Prof Changgui Li of the Qingdao University Medical School. They have completed the first large sample size genome wide association study of gout arthritis in Asia, and built a new generation genotyping and single cell sequencing technique based on nanotechnology.

Prof Tony Merriman from the University of Otago leads an international consortium undertaking a large genome-wide association study for gout in people of European ancestry. His research group has made significant advances in unravelling the role that genes and gene-environment interactions play in gout within the New Zealand population.

In an exciting development these two groups have recently forged an international collaboration entitled ‘Trans-ethnic research into the genetics of primary gout’, combining data from the Han Chinese, European and Polynesian populations to increase the power to identify genes for gout.  This study will not only help us to understand the genetic reasons for differences in the clinical features of people with gout but also to learn more about the interaction of genes and environment in gout.  Another important outcome will be the establishment of a co-operative international repository for data from the gout genetic studies that can be used to facilitate precision medicine in the prevention, treatment and management of gout.

Securing funding for international collaborative research is never easy but the potential impact of such research can bring enormous benefits to all those involved.  The groundwork for this latest success was laid when the researchers involved formed the Asia-Pacific Gout Consortium.  In April this year Professor Merriman and his University of Otago colleague Dr Wenhua Wei hosted a visit to New Zealand by researchers from mainland China, Taiwan and Japan. In August they will attend the official launch of the Consortium in Harbin, China. 

This collaboration has also been facilitated by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed earlier this year by the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission and Enterprise Dunedin to promote scientific cooperation between the sister cities of Dunedin and Shanghai.  The NCD CRCC was instrumental in having ‘major chronic diseases’ added to the MOU as a priority area for joint research. We are delighted that Prof Shi, Prof Merriman and their research teams have been successful in forming the first scientific collaboration under this agreement, and we look forward to the benefits that this research can bring to both countries.

Top row left to right: Yongyong Shi (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), Hirotaka Matsuo (National Defense Medical College), Wenhua Wei (University of Otago) Bottom row left to right: Shun-Jen Chang (National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan), Changgui Li (Qingdao University), Tony Merriman (University of Otago)

Cardiovascular research team visits Shanghai

A small team of cardiovascular disease (CVD) researchers from New Zealand ended their summer holidays early to head to Shanghai in a wintry northern hemisphere January. 

Professor Vicky Cameron of the University of Otago Christchurch, who leads the Healthier Lives programme on equitable risk prediction for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, was accompanied on this visit by Dr Katrina Poppe from the University of Auckland, who brings expertise in statistical analysis of big data to the risk prediction programme and Dr Hu Zhang, Research Collaboration Manager for the New Zealand-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC).

A busy 5-day programme of visits was generously co-ordinated by the NZ Consulate in Shanghai and the Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality.  This began with interesting and productive meetings with the Department of Epidemiology and the Department of Preventative Medicine at the School of Public Health of Fudan University, which generated lots of ideas from both sides for potential collaborations.

In the following days, the team visited a number of health facilities, including Xietu Community Hospital, Huashan Hospital, Shanghai Mental Health Centre and Ruijin Hospital. They watched a lively health education session run by three GPs teaching a group of patients about self-care, learned about the structure of the Shanghai three tier medical system, and had a fascinating discussion with a young doctor trained in Chinese Traditional Medicine procedures about how these can be interwoven with western therapy if the patient requests this. In particular, the NZ visitors were impressed by the data available to Chinese researchers from the extremely large population cohorts, with rich clinical and lifestyle information and rigorously collected biobank of samples.

There was plenty of goodwill and many exciting opportunities to follow up on.  However one proposal emerged from the meeting with the Fudan Department of Epidemiology as an immediate possibility.  There is strong interest on both sides in working on a Chinese-specific risk equation for CVD and diabetes, paralleling the work currently being done in the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge for Māori, Pasifika and Indian ethnicities.  There are exciting prospects for taking the equation back to China to validate it in a very large population cohort and possibly also in future to work on jointly validating biomarkers for incident cardiovascular events.

The NCD CRCC delegation and members of the Department of Preventive Medicine outside the entrance to the School of Public Health at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The NCD CRCC delegation, Dr Hu Zhang, Professor Vicky Cameron and Dr Katrina Poppe, were welcomed by Ms Guergana Guermanoff, NZ Consul-General Shanghai (centre) and Mr Wilson Chau, Consul (far left) of the New Zealand Consulate in Shanghai
Left to right: Prof Mao Ying, Prof Chen Xiangjun, Dr Katrina Poppe, Prof Wang Jian, Prof Vicky Cameron, Mr Chenhao Li and Dr Hu Zhang outside Shanghai Huashan Hospital

Natural Sciences Foundation of China visits New Zealand

A delegation from the National Natural Sciences Foundation of China (NSFC) has completed a whirlwind and highly productive 3-day visit to New Zealand to develop stronger scientific links between the two countries. 

Biomedical research agreement

The delegation’s first stop was a meeting with the Health Research Council (HRC) in Wellington.  NSFC Vice President Professor Liu Congqiang and HRC Chair Dr Lester Levy signed a bilateral cooperation agreement between New Zealand and China in biomedical research. The NSFC delegation then headed to Dunedin for two days of discussions with the New Zealand-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC) to explore opportunities for extending collaboration in the field of non-communicable diseases.

Expertise and experience shared

Ms Liu Xiuping, Director of the NSCF’s Division of American and Australasian Affairs, outlined the funding system for science in China, its rapid growth over the past 20 years, and the scale of scientific cooperation between China and countries around the world.

Scientists from the three health and wellbeing National Science Challenges (A Better Start, Healthier Lives and Ageing Well), Brain Research New Zealand and the Asia-Pacific Gout Consortium showcased New Zealand’s high quality research across a wide spectrum of NCDs, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, gout, childhood obesity, diabetes and age-related conditions. 

An emerging theme was the dual focus on prevention of disease as well as its early identification to enable more targeted and effective treatments. These twin approaches have major potential benefits for both countries.

NCD CRCC Co-Director Professor Wayne Cutfield noted that collaboration is a strength of New Zealand scientists.  “New Zealand is a small country with limited resources, populations to study and research platforms. To be successful NZ researchers have become very good at collaborating with researchers from around the world, contributing innovation, skills and well characterised populations to form world class collaborative teams.”

Discussions centred on the exciting opportunities for both countries to benefit from scientific collaboration, and the next steps to bring scientists together.

Left to right: Dr Hu Zhang, Prof David Baxter, Prof Parry Guilford, Prof Jim Mann, Prof Peter Crampton, Dr Liu Congqiang, Prof Cliff Abraham, Miss Liu Xiuping, Prof Tony Merriman, Prof Rachael Taylor (Prof Vicky Cameron and Prof Wayne Cutfield joined the meeting via videoconference)
The Natural Sciences Foundation of China delegation in videoconference discussion with members of the New Zealand-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre
The Natural Sciences Foundation of China delegation in videoconference discussion with members of the New Zealand-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre