Harnessing China’s people power for research

Professor David Watson is in talks with China's Central South University to open joint research labs specialising in medical genetics.
Flinders Professor David Watson is in talks with China’s Central South University to open joint research labs.

“About 600 to 700 operations for oesophageal cancer are performed in Australia each year. “In China, 1,200 cases are treated in just one hospital per annum.

“In other words, China has individual hospitals doing double the number of operations for oesophageal cancer than our entire country.”

Flinders University’s Head of Surgery, Professor David Watson, has just summed up the huge significance of a new partnership between Flinders and China’s Central South University (CSU), involving the creation of two joint research laboratories specialising in medical genetics.

The two institutions, which have a five-year history of collaboration, have just signed a new Memorandum of Understanding to set up a lab at CSU focusing on cancer genetics, and a lab at Flinders with a focus on the genetics of brain disorders.

The agreement will fund the appointment of two scientists to manage each lab, as well as support for trips to China and Australia each year.

Professor Watson, a pioneer in oesophageal-related disease research and treatment, said the China lab, based at CSU in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, will enable Flinders researchers to tap into CSU’s gene sequencing facilities and expertise; as well as China’s large population.

“CSU has strengths in gene sequencing so we will be using this expertise and cutting-edge resources to map out nucleic acids, the ingredients that make DNA and RNA, to identify genetic factors in cancer,” Professor Watson said.

“The advantage is twofold; we can tap into CSU’s gene sequencing facilities at a cheaper cost that what we could do here, and utilise their expertise because a lot of that work would normally have to be outsourced.

“But the real advantage is the ability to tap into a large population of people – China has hospitals treating huge numbers of patients for many different cancers. For some cancers, one hospital will treat more cases than our entire country.”

Professor Watson said the Flinders lab, which will also focus on medical genetics, will enable CSU to tap into Flinders’ expertise in identifying blood markers; potentially leading to blood tests for different types of cancers in the future.

“We will be doing parallel work at Flinders to verify the work at CSU – just because something shows up in a Chinese population doesn’t mean it can be extrapolated in Australia so we will still need to see if the results can be generalised across racial groups.

“At the end of the day it’s about complementing each other’s strengths; for Flinders to have access to large patient cohorts means we can address questions more quickly and know the results are accurate and meaningful.

“The benefit for CSU is that they will be able to learn a lot from our strategic focus on integrating lab work with clinical outcomes, particularly our new ideas and techniques for identifying patients with cancer, based on blood tests.”

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