Go East, young biotech

You might call it a new Silk Road. Just like Marco Polo back in the 13th century, intrepid explorers from the West are once again beating a path to the Far East in search of China's great riches. Only this time, the profits won't come from jade or exotic spices; they're in the sciences.For basic scientists in Europe and the United States, China has long represented an enormous opportunity for collaboration. But a flurry of recent news from agencies pushing stronger links with China, plus new sup

Aug 30, 2004
Stephen Pincock

You might call it a new Silk Road. Just like Marco Polo back in the 13th century, intrepid explorers from the West are once again beating a path to the Far East in search of China's great riches. Only this time, the profits won't come from jade or exotic spices; they're in the sciences.

For basic scientists in Europe and the United States, China has long represented an enormous opportunity for collaboration. But a flurry of recent news from agencies pushing stronger links with China, plus new support from China's government, suggests interest is picking up pace. For the biotech industry, this is good news.

In late July, for example, Germany's Helmholtz Association of National Research Centres opened a Chinese office-only its second overseas office after Brussels-with the aim of boosting collaboration between researchers at its 15 centers and their Chinese counterparts.

"Given the euphoric mood and the dynamism amongst the scientific community in China, it seems only natural to open our first non-European office in this country," says Helmholtz president Walter Kröll. Chinese investigators already make up the third largest national group among Helmholtz guest scientists.

Hong He, head of the Helmholtz Beijing office, explains what the Germans hope to get from the deal; their ambitions are emblematic of those seeking links with the Asian giant. "Joint ventures must always offer identifiable benefits for both sides," he says. "On the basis, our scientists at the Helmholtz Centres are researching highly complex systems, together with their chinese partners using large-scale facilities and scientific infrastructures. Together they can acheive their goals more swiftly and more efficiently."

Meanwhile, over in France, the Pasteur Institute in Paris is working with the Chinese government on a project to open a research foundation that will focus on public health needs and viral diseases. "The Chinese have made it very clear that they hope this institute will have a Diaspora effect," Michéle Boccoz, director of the international office at the Pasteur Institute, told The Scientist Daily News back in April.

And speaking of attracting a scientific Diaspora back to China, during the 10th Annual Symposium of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA), held in Beijing in late July, scientists spoke of the very bright future that biotechnology could have in the Chinese market in the next few years. The Beijing meeting and another held in Shanghai were the first meetings SCBA has ever held within China, says the group's president, Mien-Chie Hung, of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.

The visits left him smiling. "I am very impressed with the recent progress of biological sciences in China," he says. "They are moving up quickly. If you see the economic development in Shanghai, I think you will agree that biotech development in China is advancing swiftly."

Venture capital, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship in life sciences and biotechnology are booming, adds SCBA executive director Joseph Li of Utah State University. Bioventure funding is readily available, and the Chinese government is quite supportive, he says.

"Biotechnology development within China is going at an accelerating pace," Li says. "The international biotech industry and companies are eager to come to China to establish joint ventures." Those Silk Road traders might have understood why.

- Stephen Pincock