Mutual public health concerns fuel enthusiasm for joint China NZ research

New evidence that people who have had COVID-19 have a 40% greater risk of developing diabetes compared with those who have not had COVID-19 was presented among dozens of potential research areas and confirmed collaborations discussed at a “strikingly” successful e-forum between top flight New Zealand and Chinese researchers.

At the third China-New Zealand Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Research Cooperation Forum on 5-6 July, some 70 online attendees discussed mutual areas of research, such as diabetes, child obesity, cardiovascular illness, cancer, brain science and modernising traditional medicine.

Discussion about the diabetes epidemic in NZ (260-270,000 people) and China (140 million) included the new evidence of how COVID-19 raised the risk of developing diabetes.

The COVID-19 era and its impact on people with NCDs was also the topic of both keynote speakers, University of Otago Public Health Professor Michael Baker, and Professor Yu Wang – the former director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and current president of the Chinese Foundation for Hepatitis Prevention and Control.

Between them, they made clear that if you have an NCD such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity or high blood pressure, you have a higher risk of getting a severe COVID-19 infection. With each COVID-19 reinfection the risk increases. As older people are more likely to have an NCD, they are more at risk of COVID-19-related death, especially when the infection coincides with an overloaded public health system.

The forum’s main objective was to identify possible future research collaborations in priority areas and report on existing collaborative research, says University of Otago Professor Jim Mann, the Director of the New Zealand-China NCD Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC).

Professor Mann says, “The pause caused by COVID-19 has only made the appetite for working internationally with like-minded colleagues all the stronger. Strikingly so.”

Potential for collaboration around promotion of healthy lifestyle and diet to prevent NCDs such as diabetes and heart disease also caused excitement. For example, University of Otago Medical School’s Dr Andrew Reynolds’s presentation included salt reduction and the lifestyle management of NCDs. This immediately led to the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s to call for the wheels to be set in motion for sharing salt reduction strategies.

Dr Reynolds says, “Salt intake is the biggest predictor of high blood pressure, which is then the biggest predictor for stroke. Here in New Zealand we eat around twice as much salt as recommended, mainly from packaged foods, while in China they consume three times as much as recommended, so it is a very relevant topic to both countries. This forum provided an initial “hello” moment between like-minded researchers.”

Border openings have reignited an agreement made just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic for a cohort of international students from Chengdu University of Traditional Medicine, China, to Otago. These students will be able to complete one and a half years of study in their own country, and then years two and three in Otago’s School of Pharmacy Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Science degree programme

Dunedin City Council’s Enterprise Dunedin Director, John Christie says, “The 2023 cohort will be among the first international students to return to Otago, with associated economic benefits for the city as the students spend time here.”

New Zealand and Chinese health scientists keen to further research cooperation

Over 60 New Zealand and Chinese health scientists gathered in Queenstown on 30 August – 1 September 2019 to advance their collaborative work studying the brain and illnesses such as stroke, Parkinson’s and dementia, and to explore potential collaborations for modernising traditional medicines.

The forum was hosted by the New Zealand – China Non-Communicable Disease Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC), with support from the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development, Brain Research New Zealand (BRNZ), the University of Otago School of Pharmacy.

NCD CRCC Director, University of Otago Professor Jim Mann says, “Our Centre has established close ties with researchers in China. For instance, we have signed a number of Memorandums of Understanding with Shanghai institutions over the past three years that has led to generous funding from the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission to research Alzheimer’s disease and psychosis, and gout in collaboration with Chinese scientists. We’re facilitating this symposium to help grow NZ-China research relationships in the areas of brain research and in the study of traditional medicine. “We’re building on a growing relationship of trust between the science communities of both our countries, for the long-term health benefits of people in New Zealand, China and world-wide.”

BRNZ Co-Director, University of Otago’s Professor Cliff Abraham says, “Researching brain disease is a long-term project. The more we engage with other international experts to address major issues, the faster we can get results for New Zealand and the rest of the world. We can’t do it all ourselves. “We have already had initial conversations with China, planting the seeds. Now, we are moving towards developing relationships and projects. The end goal, disease treatments, may take a long time. The brain research discussion focussed on Parkinson’s, stroke, Alzheimer’s – all diseases that are difficult to address, but not insurmountable.”

Existing collaborative relationships were strengthened at the forum, such as that between Professor Jian Wang of Huashan Hospital, Fudan University, Shanghai, who is a Deputy Director of the Department of Neurology, and Professor Tim Anderson, Clinical Director of the New Zealand Brain Research Institute and Otago School of Medicine neurologist.
Professor Wang says, “We began our collaboration one year ago. From Tim’s side, he is researching the field of eye movement detection and analysis in Parkinson’s disease patients, seeing how to make better diagnoses. I bring the technology of AI, artificial intelligence. We motion capture the motor function tests of patients with Parkinson’s. I work with the company, Tencent, which also produces the Chinese social media platform, WeChat. The aim is that the Tencent people can help us quantify the motor task dysfunction of Parkinson’s patients.”

Professor Mann says China is beginning to see the disease effects of ageing and changing lifestyles, e.g. dementia, stroke, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, which New Zealand has experienced for some time. The work of world-class New Zealand researchers in these areas, plus New Zealand laboratories use of English, the western scientific method, and ethics guidelines contribute to China’s interest in health research cooperation with New Zealand, along with long-term, high-level political and trade ties between the two countries.

The forum consisted of two discussion groups, one focusing on brain research and the other on modernisation of traditional medicine.

University of Otago School of Pharmacy Associate Professor Arlene McDowell, says, “Both China and New Zealand have seen long-term use of traditional medicines in human and animal health. As a group, our research is looking at innovative ways to make medicines more efficient. We are using cutting-edge science to do this. In China’s case, traditional medicine encompasses acupuncture, therapeutic massage and herbal medicines. At this forum, we’re learning about each other’s research areas and this will help us identify links we can develop. “The talks at this forum have emphasised our shared knowledge, for example, in using compounds from plants in medicines, and it has underlined how engaged and committed we are regarding the collaboration.”

China’s Chengdu University of Traditional Medicine Associate Dean Professor Pei Jin says, “Chengdu University is famous for its work in natural product research. We focus on researching herbs, their chemicals and pharmacology, designing medicines for the market, but we want to improve our outcomes. We have begun a collaboration with New Zealand and found that the plants in our countries have common characteristics. “In October this year, University of Otago researchers will be coming to visit us, and we will discuss establishing undergraduate and postgraduate exchanges and research. Our emphasis is on education and research, especially in the area of chronic diseases. Co-operation with New Zealand researchers has a good future.”

Forum strengthens NZ-China non communicable diseases (NCDs) research collaborations

An impressive range of joint research projects between Chinese and New Zealand cancer, brain and modernisation of traditional medicine scientists may receive further support from the New Zealand-China Non-Communicable Diseases Research Collaboration Centre (NCD CRCC).

Last week the second China-New Zealand Non-Communicable Diseases Research Cooperation Forum brought researchers together for enthusiastic discussions about existing and potential areas of collaborative research. The e-forum was hosted out of Beijing by the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development and by the Dunedin-based NCD CRCC, with many delegates joining virtually from Beijing, Shanghai, Wellington and other Chinese and New Zealand cities.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) allocated the NCD CRCC $1.6million over three years to support a collaborative research programme that was initiated at the first forum in 2019 in Queenstown, plus $500,000 to maintain the centre’s activities. The forum’s introductory address from China’s Deputy Director General, Department of International Cooperation, Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), Jie Xu, indicated similarly strong support from the Chinese government.

The forum began with a formal opening ceremony with more than 50 attendees including representatives from both MBIE and MoST, plus attendees from the NZ Consulate General in Shanghai, Chinese Embassy in Wellington and Dunedin City Council’s (DCC) Enterprise Dunedin. This year’s focus was on the three priority research areas – brain science, cancer and modernisation of traditional Chinese medicine.

NCD CRCC Director Professor Jim Mann says, “The range and sheer number of possible collaborations discussed over a short space of time was impressive.
“Our first forum in Queenstown in 2019 gathered researchers together for what was very much a ‘getting to know you phase’, finding out the range of NCD and traditional medicines research areas that academics in China and New Zealand could collaborate on. This second forum cements those ties and really gets the ball rolling with active, shared research.”

Brian Research New Zealand Co-Director Professor Cliff Abraham says, “It’s clear that, like our own researchers, the speakers from China are very high performers at an international level – we are dealing with excellence. At the science level, these collaborations are only win-win. Research can go further and faster by harnessing each other’s resources. In New Zealand the resource of people with biomarkers of mental health or neurodegenerative disorders is limited, in China its huge.”

The NCD CRCC has benefitted enormously from the long standing and close sister city relationship between Dunedin and Shanghai over the years.
DCC Enterprise Dunedin Director, John Christie, says the forum and the connections the NCD CRCC have made with China are, “… practical evidence of the value of this partnership. Beyond the usual civic and cultural activities, real work has emerged. It has grown from various formal Memorandums of Understanding that provided initial political approval and backing. Now, as this forum shows, the opportunities have spread from just being between Shanghai and Dunedin, to work with other universities in other cities in both countries.”

The two-day forum concluded with reports from each group where existing collaborative relationships were strengthened and new connections emerged.