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Skype at night connects San Antonio researcher to Chinese laboratory
July 2, 2012


SAN ANTONIO (July 2, 2012) - What does a U.S. academic health center receive in exchange for allowing one of its top professors to spend a few weeks in China each year? More than just travel tips, officials at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio say.

Second Xiangya Hospital of Central South University, a teaching hospital in the city of Changsha, China, established a Metabolic Syndrome Research Center and this spring recruited Feng Liu, Ph.D., to be founding director. Dr. Liu is currently professor of pharmacology in the School of Medicine at the UT Health Science Center. He is also a member of the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies at the Health Science Center.

Dr. Liu studies one of the hottest topics in the diabetes field - adiponectin, which is secreted from fat tissue. Fat is composed of adipocyte and non-adipocyte cells. Many hormones and proteins are secreted from both types of cells and can behave both malevolently and benevolently. Adiponectin, one of the beneficial hormones, helps insulin to control blood sugar and has anti-diabetic functions. It is an insulin sensitizer.

Best of both worlds

Central South University and Second Xiangya Hospital invested 30 million yuan ($5 million in U.S. currency) to establish and equip the Metabolic Syndrome Research Center. Dr. Liu; David Weiss, Ph.D., vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the UT Health Science Center; and Alan Frazer, Ph.D., professor and chairman of pharmacology in the School of Medicine, recently visited Changsha to sign an agreement of collaboration between the Health Science Center, Second Xiangya Hospital and the newly minted metabolic center.

Dr. Liu has fewer than 10 people in his lab in San Antonio whereas more than 30 will work in his center at Changsha. "Here is a guy who runs labs on opposite sides of the globe," Dr. Weiss said. "While he performs graduate teaching and Ph.D. student training here, he directs research activities in the Metabolic Syndrome Research Center by using Skype to communicate at night with the people there."

Papers published by the collective group will list both the Health Science Center and the Chinese institute affiliations. Currently one exchange student from the center is doing diabetes-related research in Dr. Liu's lab at the Health Science Center. It is likely that Health Science Center students will also get to study in Changsha during their graduate education. "This is about establishing bridges. It's very clever and very flexible," Dr. Weiss said. "We are seeing the globalization of science. It says a lot about China's forward thinking, and San Antonio is in with the big boys on this."

San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro agrees. "Dr. Liu's innovative research and teaching methods demonstrate the kind of cutting-edge bioscience programs that San Antonio is fast becoming known for," he said.

Funds for less-obvious science

China has a competitive grant system but given the excellent quality of the science Dr. Liu conducts, "he has a leg up" in attracting Chinese funds, Dr. Frazer said. "Feng has the opportunity in China to take leaps and do riskier, less-obvious science that can generate data to apply for grants here. This is important because the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is not funding about 90 percent of grant proposals," Dr. Frazer said.

"Our Health Science Center may retain stars by allowing them to do global science," Dr. Weiss said. "Opportunities are great in China right now."

China's investment is analogous to The University of Texas System Board of Regents providing STARS funding to attract top-notch scientists to UT institutions, Dr. Frazer said.

United for Medical Research, an initiative of 20 scientific research institutions and industries, and health and patient advocates, in May announced a report on declining NIH investment. "If present trends continue, China's financial commitment to biomedical research will be twice that of the United States' in the next five years (and four times greater as a share of gross domestic product)," the organization's website states. (http://www.unitedformedicalresearch.com/)

City's ties to Orient

San Antonio's collaborations with China are increasing. In 2010, a delegation of 70 local government and business leaders traveled to China to forge business and cultural relationships during the Shanghai World Expo. While there, delegation member Xiao-Dong Chen, M.D., Ph.D., a Shanghai native with the Health Science Center Dental School, arranged a series of meetings and tours of Chinese biomedical facilities. In February 2012, Mayor Castro signed a sister city agreement with Wuxi, China, based on relationships formed during the 2010 trip. And in March 2012, two prominent Chinese scientists from Shanghai visited San Antonio to speak at a regenerative medicine symposium organized with the help of BioMed SA, a San Antonio non-profit organization that promotes growth in health care and the biosciences.

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