By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY
Cutting-edge medical research in China is promising to boost human health and development. Futuristic science is being conducted on a large scale and it is hoped this will increase the pace of discovery.
Around the world, rapid progress is being made in understanding the role played by genes and how they affect our overall health and susceptibility to diseases. Other developments are leading to the possibility of creating replacements for organs and other body parts that have been damaged through accidents, disease or genetic faults – without the need for organ donors.
Medical advances straight out of science fiction could be closer than many believe. By using machines and gene therapy, radical new methods will emerge to deal with damage done to human bodies as a result of accidents or disease. These solutions will become, in time, quicker, smaller and cheaper and will be available to more and more countries. They will spread outwards around the global South just as mobile phones and computing electronics have done.
In China, the government is investing heavily in this cutting-edge research and attracting investment and projects from around the world to increase the pace of progress in these areas.
In September 2013, Reuters reported that a 22-year-old man named Xiaolian in Fuzhou, China had a new nose grown on his forehead to replace his original nose that had been damaged in a car accident. Conventional reconstructive surgery was not possible, so this radical new approach was taken.
The advantages of growing a nose on the patient include a reduced chance of rejection by the body when the new organ is attached. Transplants of body parts from other people come with a high risk of rejection and require many drugs to prevent it. Using skin near where the transplant is to take place, on the face, improves the chances of success and the blood vessels in the forehead offer nourishment to grow the new nose.
The procedure works like this: tissue expanders are placed on the patient’s forehead. As it grows, the doctors cut the mass of tissue into the shape of a nose and cartilage from the patient’s ribs is placed inside to give the nose shape. The new proboscis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proboscis) grows under the skin until it is the right size and then transplanted onto the patient’s face where their old nose was.
Many believe this is just the beginning and that in the future replacement organs will be also grown in a lab. And this is where the new medical technology of 3D bioprinting comes into play.
3D printing machines (http://www.k8200.eu/), or fabricators, can create 3D objects based on a design sent from a computer. This concept is now also being applied to biological materials with 3D bioprinters.
Hangzhou Dianzi University of Electronic Science and Technology (hdu.edu.cn) in China launched the Regenovo 3D Bio-printer in August 2013. It prints living tissue and looks like a silver metal frame with various nozzles situated above a platform for printing the tissue. Its makers claim it can print a liver in 40 minutes to an hour or an ear in 50 minutes.
A sheet of hydrogel is placed on the platform and then the bioprinter deposits cells into the hydrogel. As the process is repeated over and over again, layer after layer, a 3D biological structure emerges.
Unique Technology (sinounic.com) in Qingdao, Shandong province has also launched a 3D printer called “Re-human”. It is capable of printing at 15 microns and can operate in temperatures of between 0 and 300 degrees Celsius. Scientists there are working on clinical trials of 3D-printed tissue scaffolds and bones.
China is very advanced in the development of 3D manufacturing technology, and is home to the world’s largest 3D printers, developed by Dalian University of Technology (http://www.dlut.edu.cn/en/). Another Chinese company pioneering this technology is Shaanxi Hengtong Intelligent Machines (http://www.china-rpm.com/english/), which sells various laser-using rapid prototyping machines and 3D machines.
Around the world, bioprinting is currently being pioneered for printing heart valves, ears, artificial bones, joints, vascular tubes, and skin for grafts.
The number of scientific papers mentioning bioprinting tripled between 2008 and 2011 according to Popular Science. But why is this happening? Three things are occurring at once: sophisticated 3D printers are now available, there are significant advances in regenerative medicine, and CAD (computer-aided design) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer-aided_design) software continues to become more advanced.
San Diego, California’s Organovo (organovo.com), a company that designs and creates functional human tissues using 3D bioprinting, has big ambitions for the technology.
“Getting to a whole organ-in-a-box that’s plug-and-play and ready to go, I believe that could happen in my lifetime,” its chief technology officer, Sharon Presnell, told Popular Science.
In the field of gene science, China is also investing significant resources to make rapid progress. China is working to make its genetic research industry into one of the country’s pillar industries.
Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) (http://www.genomics.cn/en/index) is the world’s largest genome-mapping institute, with more than 1,000 biological analysis devices working with top-of-the-line genome-sequencing machines. What makes BGI different is scale: it can handle data in vast quantities and industrialize its research, according to China Daily.
The China National Genebank in Shenzhen (http://www.nationalgenebank.org/en/index.html), associated with BGI and its Cognitive Genetics Project, is one of the largest gene banks in the world. It has collected the DNA (http://www.biologycorner.com/bio1/DNA.html) samples of some of the world’s smartest people to sequence their genomes and work out which alleles (http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/a/allele.htm) determine human intelligence.
But what will they do with this information? By doing embryo screening, it will be possible to pick the brightest zygote (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zygote) and ensure an entire generation’s intelligence is increased by five to 15 IQ (intelligence quotient) points. This could have a significant impact on the country’s economic performance, the researchers believe, and help in the country making more rapid economic and development gains. This line of research is also seen globally as being fraught with ethical dilemmas and is controversial.
But the Chinese researchers believe the country’s economic productivity, business success, international competitiveness and the amount of innovation in the economy could all increase with an IQ boost.
The eggs are fertilized in the lab with the father’s sperm and the embryos are tested until they find the smartest one.
Embryo analysis could take place on a large scale in a few years. But it is not just better brains that are possible with this technique: choices can be made about hair and eye colors, and physical attributes such as body shape.
This level of research is benefiting from vast investments in higher education in China.
And it isn’t just human beings receiving the vast investment in gene research.
To help agriculture and agribusiness, the National Center for Gene Research (NCGR) (ncgr.ac.cn) is mapping and sequencing the rice genome, and genomes of other organisms. Since 2007, it has been using the latest generation sequencing technology to map the rice genome to identify common genetic factors. It has 50 million base pairs of rice genomic DNA sequences in its public database. It is hoped this will lead to more robust rice varieties that can withstand disease and climate fluctuations and help meet the food needs of a growing global population.
1) Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine: Wake Forest Innovations was created in 2012 as a new operating division of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. As the Medical Center’s technology commercialization arm, Wake Forest Innovations supports scholarship, investing in the innovative potential of academic and clinical communities and helping translate ideas and discoveries into valuable commercial products and services. Website: http://www.wakehealth.edu/WFIRM/
2) DEKA Research & Development: DEKA Research and Development Corporation is an established company focused on the development of radical new healthcare technologies that span a diverse set of applications. Website: http://www.dekaresearch.com/index.shtml
3) Organovo: Organovo design and create functional human tissues using proprietary three-dimensional bioprinting technology. The goal is to build living human tissues that are proven to function like native tissues. Website: http://www.organovo.com/
Project Cyborg: A web-based platform geared toward nanoscale molecular modeling and simulations for cellular biology. Website: http://www.autodeskresearch.com/projects/cyborg
Make your own bioprinter: DIYBioPrinter: Step by step construction of a bioprinter from an old HP 5150 inkjet printer. Website: http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-BioPrinter/
6) Autodesk is working on CAD software for bioprinting. Website: autodesk.co.uk
7) BGI Cognitive Genetics Project: BGI Cognitive Genomics is an interdisciplinary research group at BGI, one of the largest genomics institutes in the world. The focus is human cognition, with emphasis on the use of tools made available by rapid advances in DNA sequencing technology. Website: https://www.cog-genomics.org/
8) Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology Chinese Academy of Sciences: The mission of the institute is to address fundamental questions in genetics and developmental biology and to develop new technologies for the uses in health care and agriculture sciences as well as to meet the nation’s strategic needs in science and technology. Scientists in the institute use both plant and animal models to address fundamental questions in life sciences, such as genetic control of growth and development, gene expression, signal transduction, structural and functional genomics, biotech and molecular breeding, bioinformatics and systems biology. As China owns the biggest agricultural market in the world, researchers in the Institute have also made significant efforts on water saving agriculture and agronomic studies, focusing on the improvement of crop productivity and quality as well as bio-safety. Website: http://english.genetics.cas.cn/au/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Frontier science and technology from China was regularly featured in United Nations e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions. This story, China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation, was cited in the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence Vol. 59, No.1 (Extracts, March 2015).
ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.
© David South Consulting 2021